why learn Spanish, part 5

highest well-being countries

Because 7 out of the 10 countries with the highest well-being scores are Spanish-speaking. (Though I think their well-being has as much to do with their average temperatures as their culture.)

On a related note, I start my Spanish class on Wednesday – wish me luck! (I will need it, since I may or may not have crammed a million things I don’t actually know into my head before my placement test, promptly forgotten them all, and then found myself in Level 4 wondering how I will possibly keep up.)

for those who studied Spanish in high school: I salute you

runaway brains

Good call.

If, like me, you attended high school at the dawn of the World Wide Web (or before the digital age entirely), you will recall that there were no WiFi-enabled mobile devices to distract you while you were quizzing yourself on your Spanish verb tables. The Internet is like the Mariana Trench of procrastination possibilities.

And, if you are approximately my age you will also have noticed that your brain was a million times more agile and spongy then than it is now. These days, everything I learn seems to bounce off the impenetrable fortress of my long-term memory and land in the short-term mud.

Did you know that until recently the term “geriatric pregnancy” was used to describe the pregnancy of any woman over the age of 35? (It’s not much better now: “advanced maternal age.”) Horrifying and ridiculous. However, I believe the only appropriate term for someone who studies a language past the age of 35 is geriatric learning. Advanced linguistic age also has a nice ring to it.

And those are my wrinkled, feeble thoughts for today. (Thoughts which I blogged about while avoiding studying for my Spanish placement test.)

[Photo: Anna M]

the language God is testing my faith

Bronze Door: Abraham and Isaac

I am *supposed* to be eligible for free language classes at work, provided that my contract runs through the end of the term. It doesn’t. However, the [always copious] rules stipulate that if I submit a letter from HR indicating that I am expected to be extended for the duration of the course, I can still enroll. So that’s what I set out to do. Hahahahaha.

Two months and seventeen steps later, I am still trying to enroll in this course.

I can’t even begin to explain those seventeen steps, because they themselves are like a foreign language that is untranslatable to anyone unfamiliar with where I work. But I’ll give you a small snapshot of just one portion of the insanity:

Last week, after trying unsuccessfully to wend my way out of the latest Catch-22 on my own, over the phone, and through email correspondence, I decided to grab the bull by the horns and make an in-person visit to the “language learning center” (in quotes because I now realize such a thing does not exist).

On the website it appeared that I could find this mythic center a few blocks away from the main building where I work. I went there. My ID card did not work, even though it is supposed to be good system-wide. They had to take a new picture of me. The webcam was broken. Ten minutes later, I got into the elevator and realized there were no buttons. I was informed by another rider that you have to make your selection before getting in. Of course you do. The elevator was already in motion, so I rode up to the high floor the other people had selected, got out, pressed the correct floor number on the keypad in the elevator bank, and then waited for another elevator to take me back down. (Unimportant, but telling. I have never seen an elevator like this before in my life. And yet, there was no indication. No instruction. Just the expectation that I would eventually figure it out, painfully, slowly, like an awkward tadpole.)

I got out on the second floor and was met with an eerie silence. The entire floor was empty. Cleared out. I opened every door and there was not a thing in any of the rooms – it even looked like the carpet had been stripped. So, little matter that I couldn’t find the room number, 201, because there was only 201A and 201B. Being John Malkovitch came unhappily to mind.

I went back downstairs and was told, “Oh yes, they moved months ago.” But to where, they couldn’t say. “Go to that phone in the corner and dial X33333. They’ll know.” They didn’t. They instead gave me a number that I had called before, which, when I tried it again, again went to voicemail. I left a message. (Like the last one, it was never returned.) I texted my colleague and asked for her help. She consulted the intranet, the directory, colleagues. Nothing.

You should know that this happened after I had already logged about three hours in five separate instances following various instructions and help-sheets for enrolling in this class, to no avail. And also after losing my temper on the phone with someone from the language department who led me around in circles and could not – for all my numerous attempts at breaking it down – understand my problem, in a way that ironically echoed the lost-in-translation experience. So I was just about as close as you can get to a meltdown, without being anywhere closer to giving up on taking the class.

Eventually, I did some deep breathing, returned to my sleuthing, and found the language people, who instructed me on the correct way to take the next (incremental) steps that will eventually, one day, fingers crossed, lead to a Spanish class. That is, if the language God is convinced that I have made enough sacrifices to merit such a reward.

Thankfully I don’t yet have a first-born, because I am willing to kill time but definitely not my kids for the love of Spanish.

[Photo: Holly Hayes]

soy un fan de estoy

butterfly emerges from chrysalis

The neatest thing about beginner’s Spanish: as the third of three related languages that I know in full or in part, learning it has allowed me to triangulate between them all. I’ve started to connect things about one or two of the languages through its/their relation to the third.

For example, because there is only one verb for to be in both English and French (être), and because the concept of being is exactly the same in both languages, I expected Spanish to follow suit. It was really surprising and confusing to learn that Spanish uses ser for one way of being and estar for another.

Ser =

when talking about: identity / description / the time / an event or occasion (unless asking where an event is happening, for which estar is used)

Estar =

when talking about: health / location / condition / sentiments

In class, I asked whether I could think of ser as referring to constants and estar as referring to temporals. My teacher poo-pooed me and told me to forget that nonsense and just memorize the rules above.

But I like the idea too much to abandon it, even if it’s not entirely accurate. I love that Spanish differentiates between being something firmly and concretely and being something transiently. I’m sick now, but I won’t always be sick. I’m in a hovel now, but soon I’ll be somewhere else. The tacos are terrible today, but tomorrow they could be wonderful. Okay, so I’m romanticizing, but to me estar seems nothing short of leaving room for hope.

[Photo: Vicki DeLoach]


jumping for awesome

This morning I read a couple of chapters of L’étranger on the subway. I’m about halfway through and I am a fan of how easy it is to read in French but not really a fan of the book per se. I said to my French colleague, “I’m not sure I get the premise. Is he behaving like that because he has Asperger’s or something?” He replied that it was just like an American to jump to a psychological diagnosis and that actually this is a novel about existential ennui or something like that. Not sure I’m convinced.

After work I went to a French conversation Meetup at which I spoke with grilled a woman who had just returned from taking a year off to study French in Strasbourg. It’s a good thing my French sounds so silly because otherwise she may have been intimidated by my rapid fire interrogation: how did she do it, why did she do it, why did she do it when she did it, and every other detail I could suck out of her to inform my own “study abroad” decision.

On the subway ride home I wiped my Duolingo slate clean and started fresh with Spanish, even though I already got through the whole thing last year. I am in a no man’s land at the moment as I’m between one Spanish class and the next, which starts in September. I figured I may as well re-do Duolingo so I don’t lose the past semester’s hard-won progress. I’m looking forward to experiencing once more the haphazard juxtapositions of words that pass for human utterances. (To wit: You drink my cat’s milk.)

Alors, adios y bonne nuit!

[Photo: THX0477]

back in action (?)

exhausted cat

So it turns out the longer you take a break from something, the harder it is to get back to doing it. I told myself I’d give myself a week off from blogging to focus on my work transition. One week turned into two and then three and now it’s been almost a month. Especially sad is that I didn’t post anything on April 21, my one year blogiversary. I had been planning to mark the occasion, but on that particular day and in the two weeks since I just felt too overwhelmed with job-related stuff. So my poor blog had to celebrate all on its own, silently and without fanfare. 😦

During my unintended hiatus, I neglected more than just the blog. I stopped doing my Spanish homework and quite frequently looked like this in class:

What is this I don't even

My last Spanish class was last night and now it’s up to me to carry on with it at home, after a month of slacking. Doesn’t bode well.

I also stopped going to my French conversation Meetups, ignored all emails and texts, and went for about one and a half runs total when in a good month I do two or three a week. In effect, all I’ve done is work, think about work, worry about work, semi-sleep, and over-eat.

Such is my way.

Luckily, my new place of employment’s foreign-ness – in every sense of the word – has been compensating for my lack of attention to all things foreign in my extracurricular life. It’s hands down the most international spot in all of New York – and really, anywhere. I’ve met people from about 20 different countries on six continents. I hear French constantly and I’ve spoken it nearly every day. I feel like I’m both at the world’s doorstep and on the world’s stage every time I walk through the doors.

Now in my third week on the job, I’m feeling a bit more acclimated and I’m starting to pick back up the other pieces of my life. Which, I hope, means I’ll be back to blogging regularly soon. We shall see…

that’s a lot of words


I recently read: “There are seven times more words in English than in French (500,000 versus 70,000), which suggests that French relies on contextual clues to resolve semantic ambiguities to a greater extent than English. Many words in French have multiple possible meanings… which means that the listener is responsible for discerning the intention of the speaker.”*

I suppose I could be heartened by the fact that there are only 60-some-thousand words I don’t know in French. Apparently it could have been much worse.

I’ve always found it strange that a country known for romance has the same word for like and love – that you have to figure out the meaning of aimer based on context clues. But now a correlation between romance and multi-meaning words occurs to me. Fewer words + more interpretation = greater opportunity for happy accidents in which one person misunderstands the other’s semantical intentions, believes that love is being declared, and is inspired to respond in kind. Perhaps France is brimming with l’amour because everyone’s living out their own version of a screwball romantic comedy.

As a related tidbit, this little quiz estimates that I know 30,900 English words. I will try to keep this in mind the next time I’m feeling dumb as a brick while attempting to make simple statements in Spanish or not-so-simple ones in French.

P.S. For English learners (and speakers who want to boost their vocab), here’s an aptly named site.

* I read this quote from Erin Meyer’s “The Culture Map” here.

[Photo: Martin Latter]

why learn Spanish, part 4

flags of Spanish-speaking countries

Because the average temperature in the Hispanophone world is 70.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

The average temperature in the United States is 52.9, and the average temperature of this winter in New York is cold-as-fuck.