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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Learning the Lingo

Any first year student of a Romance language, without looking it up in a dictionary of etymology knows that the word “lingo” that I used in the chapter title comes from the Latin meaning “tongue” from which we get the English word “language” (lengua in Spanish means “tongue” or “language”). One by-product of learning Spanish is that my English vocabulary has received a very healthy shot in the arm. My French has also improved almost miraculously considering how little I do to improve it on my own. Something like 32% of English comes from French and thus Latin. The French words we adopted either replaced words from the earlier version of English, or they were introduced as new words which didn’t exist, or they were synonyms of words already in use. These synonyms derived from French are usually just fancy substitutes for the older English words. The meaning of most of those impossible words you find on the verbal section of multiple choice exams I can now deduce because I know their meaning in either Spanish or French or both.
From the day I arrived in Spain I have worked diligently to learn Spanish. I thought that I would speak it perfectly after a couple of years. Almost with a sense of haunting dismay I have come to realize that I will always be studying Spanish like a university student before a big exam. There isn’t going to be a finish line. There will be no “Mission Accomplished” banner marking a job well done. This is just one of the cruel realities of learning a foreign language, especially as an adult. It’s something I still have trouble accepting.
I had studied Spanish and French grammar in school and I didn’t think too highly of this strategy so when I landed in Spain I decided to start running. Instead of pouring over grammar books I began reading as much as I possibly could. I began with the local newspapers which litter the tops of bars in Spain. People go to bars for their morning coffee so every bar has a few newspapers lying around. I thought that if a word was in the headline of a story it must be important. I would write down all of these headline words that were unfamiliar and look them up in the fat little student Spanish/English dictionary I carried around everywhere.  I filled at least a half a dozen notebooks with definitions. Whether or not this is an effective technique is something that I cannot attest to but it was mine.
From newspapers I began reading books in my new language.  I wouldn’t bother to look up words if I could follow the meaning of the story without doing so. I would understand maybe sixty percent of something I read but I was absorbing a lot of words simply because I understood them inside the context of the story. The same was true of grammar patterns. As my Spanish improved I began to underline new words with a red pen. At the end of the day I would look the words up in the dictionary and write the English definition in the margin. I still wasn’t looking up every new word but only those I felt were necessary to understand the story.
I was also trying to speak as much as I possibly could but this wasn’t as easy as it sounds because when I arrive I had no friends and knew no one. I’d go to a bar in my neighborhood and bug the owner with my bad Spanish. My first friends at the bar were other immigrants with similar problems in Spanish. I suppose that almost everywhere people tend to rate outsiders on how well they speak the native language. When I arrived I probably didn’t rate very high at all. I had a decent grasp of Spanish but anything other than basic communication was out of my league. Even someone with the patience of the pyramids will find it burdensome at times to carry on a conversation with someone with a limited knowledge of the language.
Just after I arrived in Spain I remember watching the movie Y Tu Mamá También in which two young boys make a road trip across their home country of Mexico.  They stop for the night in some small village and head straight to the bar.  I remember feeling incredibly jealous of them because they were so comfortable in this situation, something I took for granted in my own country. I’ll never have native fluency but I desperately wanted to have a fraction of the ease the boys had in Spanish.


  1. Ah, look at the other side of the mirror. We, spaniards, will be always learning english. The grammar is easy, yes (if it's compared to german or russian). But speaking english is other thing. I can read a book, but I can't know how pronounce the words: good (well, let's pronounce as spaniard "gud"); but blood ("blad")? Give me a text in swahili (or german, italian or russian) and I can pronounce every word (without knowing the meaning, yes). Give a text in english and, knowing the meaning, I will give you a tone of laughs with the pronunciation.

    Sareb el Malo

  2. La palabra "fácil" nunca entra en la conversación cuando hablo de la enseñanza de idiomas pero “imposible” uso con mucha frequencia.


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