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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Keep Hammering Away

Keep Hammering Away

Jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins once said that if he missed a day of practice on his horn he would notice, if he missed two days his band would notice, and if he missed three days the audience would hear it. It's sort of the same thing with learning Spanish. The task of learning Spanish is always present, like a cloud that hangs over you night and day. There are no days off. If you aren't moving forward you are being left behind. I sometimes feel almost frantic to improve my Spanish; to learn more words; to round off the American edges on my accent; to conquer a new idiom or two; to finally get a grasp on that damn vosotros form they don't teach much in America. It's not any sort of race, there is never going to be a finish line, but I feel that if I don't study every day I am somehow losing.

In two years I have gone from being the “just off the boat” new guy. Then I moved up to the motivated intermediate. Right now I think that I am among the “fairly fluent but still with much to learn” subcategory. I can have a conversation about just about anything unless I am absolutely lacking in vocabulary for that particular subject. I recently had some plumbing issues to take care of in the apartment and I realized that I have none of the necessary vocabulary. I suppose that part of the process of becoming bilingual is experiencing every situation and learning from it all of the vocabulary, grammar patterns, and idioms. If there is a way to speed up this process I'd like to know about it.

The only way that I have learned to speed up learning Spanish is by reading. I mean, you can't really talk any faster. I suppose that I could listen to the radio more frequently as this improves my listening comprehension. Watching movies and television isn't too efficient because lots of movies don't have much in the way of dialogue. You can read more words in about 15 minutes than are spoken in some films. Reading, on the other hand, is a very efficient use of your time if you are learning another language. It is also the best way to develop your vocabulary. If you don't read The Godfather in Spanish then how will you ever learn how to make someone an offer they can't refuse, or say that to someone in Spanish?

I am at the point where a lot of foreign people think that I am Spanish when they hear me talk. This has more to do with their own low level of Spanish than my verbal skill, but still. That's kind of cool when people tell me that. I recently found a cell phone on the road while I was working out on my bike. I picked it up and did a redial of the last number that came in. It turns out the owner was on the other end as he had been calling his phone from a friend's cell. I immediately recognize his accent as Romanian as we spoke about where we could meet so I could return his phone. It was sort of a pain in the ass as his Spanish was pretty lousy. We finally did meet up and he was very grateful. He had left his phone on the roof of his car and drove off. It just so happens that I was on a stretch of road I normally avoid but couldn't on this day because the bike bridge was under repairs. I tried to make a joke about the difficulty of two immigrants trying to converse on the phone. I noticed that he look a little insulted—like I had made fun of his Spanish. I realized that he probably thought I was from Spain. I explained that I was American and he seemed shocked.

It's not just the language that seeps into your system. You find yourself becoming more Spanish in all aspects of your daily life. Your eating hours either shift to the Spanish schedule or you are left incredibly out of sync with everyone else. The types of food that I eat would be hardly recognizable to the average American. Last night I didn't feel like cooking so I just I just made some tapas of bread with anchovies, tomato, and a tortilla I had made the day before. I topped this off with some olives and a glass of red wine. Little by little this square America peg is getting hammered into a round slot.