the simple things


I live in a Dominican neighborhood so I have plenty of opportunities to speak Spanish if I so choose. I haven’t thus far because I’m so limited in what I can say and understand.

But this weekend I held the door open for a little old lady with her granddaughter, and she said “Gracias” to me. It took me far too long to switch gears and respond, “De nada,” but I still counted it as a full conversation entirely in Spanish, and I was pleased. You’ve gotta start somewhere.

[Photo: mckinney75402]

español no es fácil

studying dog

Last week, I got demoted in Spanish. The teacher spoke with me after class and told me she thought I’d be better off in Level 3 than Level 4, where I was having trouble holding my own, to put it mildly. Even though I knew she was right, and had asked the Spanish coordinator to go down a level before the class even started (to which he encouraged me to stay put, give it a week, and re-assess), it stung to be called out as the one out-of-her-depth kid holding up all the others. That’s not quite how my teacher put it – but in contrast to my Spanish, my English language inference skills are excellent, and that’s exactly what she meant.

Apart from my wounded pride, though, I’m happy to have made the switch. Level 3 feels much more appropriate to my aptitude, or lack thereof. And my new teacher is from Buenos Aires, which is awesome because a. falling in love with Argentina was my inspiration for picking up Spanish again (fifteen years after falling in love with Barcelona was my inspiration for attempting to learn Spanish the first time), and b. Argentine-accented Spanish is the most amazing-sounding thing on Earth and I want to be around it as much as possible (though I will never in a million years be able to replicate it).

In completely unrelated news, here are some interesting reads that I missed the chance to post last Friday:

The moral case for eliminating borders completely 

I so wish I had gone to a dual-language public school. They are on the rise. 

Six travel apps every solo female traveler should have

Studying the Pompeians’ lives, rather than their deaths

Can you imagine flying across the Atlantic for $150 round-trip? It may soon be possible…

36 hours in Buenos Aires (though my 36 hours would be a lot different than the Times’)

Have a good week!

[Photo: Francisco Martins]

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]