Trying to use Spanish with feeling

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December 8th 2010
Published: July 2nd 2017
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After four months of Spanish classes, I figure I must have something to say about it.

Well, first off, it's a lot more difficult than I imagined. And, physically, it is doing something to my noggin. At the end of a tough class it is as though I can feel the knowledge stretching my brain. At least, I hope it is knowledge, and not an aneurysm.

Before I came to Argentina, I'd bought wholesale into the idea that you can "pick up" a language, like it's a lucky penny or herpes. Well, maybe there are people who can do that, but I am not one of them.

For me, I have to think a lot, and, even after learning how to conjugate Spanish verbs in the pluperfect subjunctive, I went into a shop this evening, asked if they had milk and then had to say “leche” four times before the person working there understood what I wanted. I stood there wondering what would be more embarrassing – leaving the shop misunderstood and empty-handed or following this up with with the Spanish for “You know? White liquid...from a cow?”.

How did I get to this point of near fluency, you ask?
Proof that puns don't travel well eitherProof that puns don't travel well eitherProof that puns don't travel well either

"After many years of fighting to control his impulses and desires, Luke Skywalker turned to the dark ice-cream." (The Spanish for "the dark side" is "el lado oscuro", whilst "dark ice-cream" is "helado oscuro", pronounced without the "h". Geddit? Oh, how we laugh!)
After arriving in Buenos Aires in July, in the first week I did a four-day (four hours a day) introductory course with Español Andando (U$D120, £75 for the week). I strongly recommend it. The tutor meets you in a different part of the city each day in a café or bar and you study a few basics (numbers, greetings, days of the week, a couple of basic verbs…😉. Afterwards, you go for a walk and the tutor tells you a bit about the area. A lot of it is in English, with introductory Spanish brought in here and there. Many students, and most classroom courses, would go straight for total immersion, but, to be honest, I liked having a teacher that spoke English a little for the first week, and this course was a great way to get to the know the city very quickly.

In week two, there was a gear change when I started at Spanish school called DWS (U$D175/£110 per week for the intensive course...often less if you bulk-buy, haggle well or study at off-peak times of year). The school is in Palermo, which, I knew from my week one experience, was my favourite part of town. I signed up for four weeks at DWS in July and am still there after more than four months, so they are doing something right.

It's a great school - very sociable and the classes are small, which is fantastic; there are rarely more than two other students in the class with me. All of the teachers are very good at what they do. Some are particularly skilled at the chatty, smiley “Let's play a board game!” stuff, whilst a couple of others are a little more old-school (“Good morning. Open your text books at page 21, and let's get going with some more possessive pronoun work”😉. When you do the intensive course, you have two teachers per day, and I think that's the best way. Four hours with one teacher (the norm in many other language schools in Buenos Aires) would be a bit much.

I remember one conversation a few weeks ago with one of the old-school teachers about the process of learning a language.

The first thing he said is that, no matter how good you get at using a second language, you will never use that language fluently for mathematics or off-the-cuff swearing. When you are in a hurry and you need to count some money or do a quick sum in your head, or when someone runs over your foot with their car, you will always revert to the language in which you first learnt maths or swearwords. So, a brain can only handle one language for these things. Whether this is true or not, I thought it was interesting, and also that it is something I can live with.

Then he said that he once worked with a student who had become completely fluent in Spanish but who, after reading a piece of fiction in Spanish, wasn't able to discuss its meaning. Yet, when he read a similar story in English, he could chat about his reaction to it for hours. It was as though he understood the Spanish language in theory but wasn't connecting naturally with the meaning.

Now, this worries me because I can definitely identify with this sense of hollowness. Reading short stories in Spanish, I might understand all the words individually but together they feel pretty empty. And, talking Spanish, often it feels more like I am hearing my words, rather than saying them. I have no idea whether this is normal, but, in some ways, it feels inevitable.

In English, when I read or hear a word – the word “freezing”, for example – the word is attached to thirty-four years' worth of memories and experience; of spending an freezing winter in Copenhagen, of a gold-fish bowl of water freezing over in my bedroom when I was ten, of the trains being cancelled in the freezing London weather last winter. All of these memories are bound to help provide an emotional basis for any story that I read or tell which contains the word "freezing".

However, with Spanish words, instead of thirty-four years' of experience and memories, I have four months' worth. The word “helado” (“freezing”😉 rings very few emotional bells for me right now. I can learn the meaning of the Spanish word, but the difference is that, when I read or say “freezing”, I can actually feel cold.

As a result, I try to squeeze my memories and experiences of “freezing” into the space occupied by “helado” in my brain. But this doesn't quite work - perhaps partly because words in different languages never overlap precisely. “Helado” may be the closest approximation to “freezing” in many circumstances, but not all. Translate “freezing their pay”, “freezing point”, “deep freezing the chicken” or “freeze, don't move!” from English to Spanish and the word “helado” is nowhere to be seen. Plus, in this incongruent venn diagram of meaning, "helado" means many things in Spanish which "freezing" doesn't mean in English ("dumbfounded", "ice-cream"...)

There is also something a little deadening about the process of forcing the English-speaking bit of your brain to lend memories and experience to populate Spanish words with emotion. It kills the flow and makes it difficult to have an emotional response. When a teacher says to me, “What's your immediate reaction to this short story?” all I want to say is, “Give me a few days to process it and re-read it and then I might be able to devise some kind of immediate reaction. Right now, I've got nothing.”

Thinking back, the teacher telling me about the student who could use, but not feel, Spanish, there was something a little “you will prick your finger on a spinning needle and your Spanish will be forever hollow” about the tone of his voice. However, for now, I'm still optimistic that my Spanish will become more 3-D. And, when I have one of those days when the Spanish gets tough or feels particularly hollow, I might try to remind myself that people who speak more than one language are less likely to get dementia when they're older, which will hopefully give me a little extra energy for it all - like flicking that reserve of ink in a Parker pen cartridge.

Only if, in a few months' time, I still can't make the word "leche" understood in a supermarket or I find myself googling "how to remove teacher's curse", might I start to allow the optimism to fade.


11th December 2010

Clearly the answer is to make sure you store up lots of interesting memories in Spanish :-) It sounds like that is happening!

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