I haven’t had much to say here for awhile, because until a couple of weeks ago, I had all but abandoned my various language pursuits. My French has been withering on the vine for two years, since I left the full-time job that had me both speaking French frequently with West African colleagues and taking weeks-long trips to francophone countries every few months. My Hebrew reached its peak in Israel last year, only to fall off a steep cliff when I abandoned my practice of it promptly upon my return to the States. As for Spanish, I’ve pretty much spoken twenty minutes of it in the past half-decade. I spent a few days in Lima for work last year and attempted to communicate in Spanish at one point and one point only. It became quickly apparent that the language had curled up and hidden away somewhere in my brain. (At least that’s my belief about what happens to language skills upon disuse; I never think languages are lost, just burrowed far from consciousness.)Continue reading
Category Archives: Spanish
some fresh (and hopefully not false) starts
A couple of months ago, I tried and failed to read a sign in Hebrew that I passed in the Hasidic part of Williamsburg. I realized that I was forgetting the alphabet, or rather, the Alef Bet. This filled me with horror, since I’ve known how to read Hebrew almost as long as I’ve known how to read English, and I thought the ability to do so was an unshakeable feature of who I am.
Then I realized that I had already forgotten how to read one other language that I used to know fluently. Three decades ago, I could play sheet music on my clarinet, effortlessly. (I mean, I could read the notes effortlessly. I could not play the instrument to save my life.) Continue reading
I missed my blogiversary :(
And it’s a big one – 5 years! Half a decade of hard work to finally speak French, and to consistently write in English. But on Sunday I forgot all about it in the midst of a bunch of craziness.
Had I remembered my blogiversary on the correct day, I would have realized how perfect the timing was. On Sunday I returned to New York from South Jersey filled with renewed motivation to get back on the language horse. That’s because I spent the preceding week with my family and was amazed and inspired by how my seven year-old niece has picked up Spanish practically overnight.
When I left the United States for Senegal at the beginning of January, my niece was two days into the bilingual English-Spanish program at her new school. All her classmates had started the program a half-year earlier because their parents had signed their kids up at the end of the previous school year. But Hannah and her family moved into the school district over the summer, and by the time they tried to sign her up, the program was at capacity. My brother and sister-in-law put her on the wait list and she joined the English-only track in the meantime.
In December, Hannah got the news that a space had opened up and she could start the bilingual track in the new year. My brother told me not to mention it to Hannah before I left, because she wasn’t looking forward to leaving her new friends and starting all over again with yet another set of new classmates. I thought that was a small price to pay for becoming fluent in a second language at a young age, but of course a seven year-old (six at the time) wouldn’t share that sentiment.
Cut to three and a half months later. When I hung out with Hannah, I made sure not to bring up Spanish in case it was still a sensitive subject. Instead, it was she who randomly answered a question from her mom with a Spanish response. Thinking this was my opening, I asked her how Spanish was going. Because she is seven, she couldn’t give her parents (who were in the room) the satisfaction of thinking that she had come around to their point of view, so she insisted over and over again that she hated Spanish – in Spanish. “Why?” I asked. “Porque es un otro lenguaje,” she answered in a perfect accent. In the ten minutes of Spanish conversation that followed, I struggled to remember how to say the most basic words and phrases, and she answered flawlessly, effortlessly, mellifluously. I told her that I was both incredibly impressed and incredibly jealous of her Spanish abilities and she rolled her eyes.
Yes, Hannah, I know that feeling. When I was approximately seven my mom hired a Hebrew tutor to come to the house and give me lessons after school. I still remember it with the visceral responses I had then, of life-threatening boredom mixed with intense desperation to escape. I don’t know what happened with the tutoring – I’m pretty sure it didn’t last longer than a couple of months. Maybe I moped about it so much that my mom gave in and discontinued the lessons. Thirty years later, I would give at least one good finger to go back in time and sit through those stupid lessons no matter how mind-numbing they were.
So, even though Hannah was not in the least excited about her newfound Spanish, I could not have been more excited for her. Clearly, one of my biggest unfulfilled wishes in life is that I had been raised bilingual or at least schooled bilingually. I would have saved so much trouble and hard work that way, with a better result than what I’ve got now after years of struggle and effort: inconsistent proficiency rather than fluency in French, ridiculously grasping Spanish, and exceptionally faltering Hebrew. I’d know how it feels to have two different but equally accessible forms of expression at my disposal, to toggle between two different worlds with ease. I will never know what that’s like and it really bothers me.
But, just because I’ll never have two equally balanced fluent languages in my brain doesn’t mean I shouldn’t keep trying to learn other languages to the best of my ability. Without realizing it, my niece inspired me to get back to work. I am going to sign up for a Rosetta Stone subscription so that I can learn Spanish right along with her (or a few steps behind her, more likely).
When I started this blog five years ago my goals were to move to Senegal, learn to speak French fluently, and learn Spanish and Hebrew pretty well. I would say I’ve gotten about 50% there. On my fifth blogiversary (plus a few days), it feels appropriate to set a new goal for the next five years of this blog. Here it is: Go the remaining 50%. 💪
[The photo is a drawing that Hannah gave me last week. Apparently it is the cover to a blank book about the three little pigs; I think the point was that I was supposed to fill in the book. Because she is somehow a full-on Spanish speaker after three months of immersion, she wrote the title of the book in Spanish first, and then in English.]
So, Seville. It’s such a many-splendored city that my selects folder has 44 photos in it, even though I usually stick to a 15-image limit for any one post.
First of all, it’s a rich and therefore gilded city. Second of all, its aesthetic has been shaped by several very different cultures – Moorish, Catholic Spanish, and Gothic European. Sometimes all three influences are visible in one structure, to fascinating effect. Third of all, the ornateness and scale of the town’s three or four big eye-poppers is such that they are impossible to do justice to in only a couple of images. But, I scrapped a bunch of photos nevertheless, in order to leave you with what I hope is a nice and concise impression of a very nice and very grandiose city. Continue reading
My plans, or lack thereof
So… I’m leaving Dakar. Which I know sounds ridiculous coming just days after I posted a love letter to the city. I meant every word of it, and I’m sure I would fall even harder the longer I stayed. But sometimes you can’t be with the one you love. Continue reading
¡progreso en español!
I left for Mexico City on the last day of my Spanish class, a perfect segue between theoretical practice and putting it all into actual practice. My hope was to get a full immersion experience, use English as seldom as possible, and come back speaking Spanish leaps and bounds beyond where I started.
Problem is, I don’t know that much Spanish to begin with. I’ve learned two forms of the past tense but not the one that seems most important, the simple past. Likewise, I know the easy form of the future tense (ir + infinitive), but not the more sophisticated one. I am clueless when it comes to using verbs with se at the end, because I keep projecting the French rules for reflexive verbs onto them, and they just do not follow those rules. And my vocabulary is severely limited.
It’s not easy to immerse with such a small tool set. So, my level of success was varying. Sometimes, due to accents above all, I could not understand a single word a person was saying, and they could not understand me either. Many times, I thought I was cleverly and rather poetically working my way around the words I didn’t know, when in actuality my creative expression was only further confusing things. Often, I swapped similar-sounding words and wreaked havoc on my intended meaning, as when I told a man that my job was to make girlfriends – novias – instead of the news – noticias. (Akin to when I kept referring to hair – cheveux – as horses – chevaux – in France.)
I had better luck once I accepted the fact that I had to think my words through more carefully before spitting them out, even though I was already talking at a snail’s pace. After a slooooow conversation with two local men towards the end of my trip, one commented to another, “Ella habla muy despacio pero cada palabra es perfecto.” I was thrilled at the backhanded-compliment – despite their obvious belief that I was too slow to understand what they were saying about me.
And eleven days of semi-immersion is all it takes, apparently. By the end of my trip, when I was in a taxi returning to the hotel in Mexico City after my Elsewhere adventure, I became a veritable charlatan. (Not a pretender, as in the English definition, but rather a chatterbox, as in the Spanish. Intriguing, no, that there is an etymological connection between lying and over-talking?) I was making crazy confident conversation. The words were flowing. I understood the cabbie, he understood me. It was like I had hit my Spanish flow.
The same thing happened in France, though on a much higher level. In Mexico, I was ecstatic to find I could form complete sentences with the correct tense and conjugation. In France, I was astounded when I could carry on the same conversations I would have had in English. But in both cases, I kept hitting a wall, hitting a wall, hitting a wall, and then went to bed one night and woke up the next day speaking the language.
In short: immersion makes miracles happen.
lo que hice en mis vacaciones de invierno
Considering that my command of both French and Spanish is at a grade-school level, it seems appropriate to report on my vacations to French and Spanish-speaking countries with elementary school-style essays. Today I bring you the second installment: DF and Elsewhere edition.
Please note that I did not consult Google Translate or a living, breathing Spanish speaker for this. So what follows is not pretty, but it’s an accurate representation of where I’m at when I have only my brain and Spanish spell-check to rely upon:
He llegado por la tarde en Cuidad de México (DF) y he ido a mi hotel en el barrio Condesa. La primera noche, he conocido a mi amiga de la universidad que vive ahora en DF. En el restaurante ella me dijo que puedo beber el agua además comer los vegetales frescos, si es un bueno restaurante, porque ellos anudan ‘iodine’ a su agua y limpian todo con este agua. Aunque el más importante reglo que he escuchado para México estaba de no beber el agua, decidí de crear en mi amiga y esperar por lo mejor. O sea que la primera cosa que he comido en México estaba la más prohibida: unos hojas de una verdura con agua no-de-la-botella (no-botellado?). Continue reading
Let’s just say that I went somewhere that I desperately wanted to talk about but didn’t want to call by name. Let’s just say that I did not feel like discussing the reasons for this publicly. Let’s just say that I chose to call that place Elsewhere and asked you to call it that, too. Let’s just say, OK? Okay. Adelante!
(get over the) hump day inspiration: Terry Pratchett edition
I don’t actually need any hump day inspiration considering that I got back from vacation last night and did literally nothing at work today but hang out and hyperventilate/chatter about said vacation while extremely high on espresso and life.
I’ll share photos once I sift through all 1,500+ of them and find the gemmiest of the many, many gems… Because where I went, it was eye orgasms every which way you looked.
Hasta pronto, mis amigos! No puedo esperar para mostrar mis fotos del más magnífico vacaciones en la historia de vacaciones! (I’m still high on that coffee, fourteen hours later.)
It’s 1:57 a.m. and I have to leave for the airport at 5:05. Part of the reason I’m still awake is that
tomorrow today is the last day of my Spanish class, during which there will be a final exam. Because I won’t be there, my teacher provided me with instructions for taking the exam online on some special site. So in addition to my usual last-minute million things to do, tonight before packing I took a 1 1/2 hour Spanish test.
Which I failed miserably. Not because I did badly per se, but because something went horribly wrong when the timer ran out on Part One while I was still typing, which somehow triggered the entire exam to submit itself without giving me a chance to move on to the more heavily weighted second essay. And apparently once the exam is submitted, there’s no way to reverse course and continue working on it.
The submission confirmation page showed me what the second essay question was, so I typed something up in Word and emailed it to my teacher, along with a little note beseeching her to show me mercy.* Since I’ll barely have Internet access during my trip, I won’t actually know whether she did or not til I return from what will be the true test of my Spanish skills.
…In approximately twelve hours I’ll be in Mexico City, trying desperately to be understood. And wishing desperately for a nap.
Back in a couple of weeks. Hasta luego!
*I care about my grade not because of pride or perfectionism but because if I don’t pass the test, I don’t pass Level 3 Spanish, and I can’t move on to Level 4 if I ever come back to work here after my current contract ends.