Friday, August 28, 2015

XXXIII. Hablar-ing Español

Speak-ando Spanish

My tools to learn how to speak Spanish: workbooks, dictionary,
flashcards for verb conjugation and constructing phrases.
In the several weeks since my last post our Spanish lessons have ended and we’ve been planning a road trip before our next session begins September 7. We’re going to a village in the highlands of Michoacan—about a four hour drive from where we live now. There’s a significant indigenous presence there, and the area is famous for its variety of local crafts. I’ll write about the trip after we return, but today I’d like to explore our insights and experiences with, and feelings about, studying español.

Spanish is a relatively easy language to learn. It has half the vowel and diphthong sounds as English (10 vs. 20), and each letter is pretty much always pronounced the same way. If you see a word, you can pronounce it; if you hear it clearly, you can most likely spell it. There are many cognates, or similar words, in both español and inglés. Today, for example, I wanted to say, in Spanish, the equivalent for the English word, “agent”. I guessed “agente”—pronounced "ah-hain-tay"—looked it up in the dictionary: correcto! And yes, “correcto” is the way a Spanish speaker might say “correct”.

Our informal Spanish teacher, Patricia, the owner of one of our
favorite restaurants, pointed out to us that Spanish words are
often longer than English. Here is an example formed by the
suffix -miento. When you add it to a verb, like estacionar--to
park--you form a noun--parking. The sign is on the wall of a
parking lot. That's 9 syllables in Spanish compared to 2 in
English for the same meaning. 
La educación, la información, la confirmación, la reputación—all easily understood by an English speaker, or a native of any country where a Romance language is spoken, especially if you consider the context. There are other words, of course, but they may be tricky. Emergencia is easily recognized as "emergency" when you see it written, but when you hear "eh-mair-hain-cee-uh" in the middle of an excited sentence, you might not be able to respond appropriately. The culprit here is our soft 'g' which is usually pronounced in Spanish like our 'h'. 

In addition to the many, many cognates, it helps to learn the suffixes that tell you whether a word is a noun (-ción, for example), an adjective (-idad is often used), or an adverb (-mente, as in completamente)

One of the things that confuses us, though, is the presence of gender in nouns and adjectives. Most of us know the Spanish male and female articles for our all-purpose “the”: el and la, respectively. Usually, male nouns end in “o” and female in “a”; so it's el contrato (contract) and el cuello (neck), or la cabeza (head) and la cerveza. But not always, by any means; for example, it’s ela and la foto—the opposite of what you’d expect. And there are tons of other nouns that end in neither “o” nor “a”, but still have been assigned (and you must remember) a masculine or feminine gender.

If you get the gender wrong, the mistake will be compounded because adjectives describing a noun have to agree with the noun's gender. A cerveza (beer, feminine) is not frio (cold), but fria.  And your sore cuello (neck, masculine) is dolorido, not dolorida. As if remembering and assimilating all that information is not enough, you also need to keep in mind that almost always the adjective follows the noun, not precedes it, as it does in English. So, a “sore neck” becomes a “neck sore”, or cuello dolorido. It’s enough to give you a headache which, unfortunately, is not a cabeza dolorida, but un dolor de cabeza—an ache of the head.

Another very common suffix you see is -eria, which describes
a place where something, as indicated by the root word, is
made or sold. In this case we have the barely recognizable
cognate "salchichon" meaning "sausages" as the root and
the entire word basically means "deli". "Pan" is "bread" and
the other letters before the suffix are added for ease of
Spanish seems to have much fewer words, in total, than English*. Take the verb “to hike” for example. I pestered my knowledgeable teacher for its Spanish equivalent. The best she could come up with is caminar which generally means “to walk”. For my volunteer work in the LCS garden I need hedge shears. I went into a second-hand store looking for one, mimed how I planned to use them en el jardin, the fellow showed me what they had, and I asked him what they were called. “Tijeras”, he told me—scissors. The same word covers a multitude of uses.

Thus, to understand the meaning of a word in Spanish you will more likely need to make an inference from the context. In other words, since meaning is often not parsed so exactly as in English, closer attention has to be paid to the intention of the speaker. True, en español, you can use more and simpler palabras to get that more concise meaning, but that same exactitude could be obtained in English with fewer, more precise words.

"Carne" (think carnal or carnivorous) means "meat".
I sometimes wonder how these linguistic differences might contribute to a mind-set or way of thinking by native Spanish speakers that is dissimilar to our own. 

Of course, all this supposition could be way off the mark, and just a function of my rudimentary level of understanding this foreign language. I mean, I only just graduated from Book One of our course. My studious spouse and I are both taking Warren Hardy Spanish which is derived from the author's work teaching ex-pats in San Miguel de Allende, a town several hundred kilometers away from here, and incidentally near where Kerouac’s buddy, Neal Cassidy, froze to death walking along the railroad tracks.

In four levels we move from functional to conversational Spanish. I’ve just finished the first level which means I can communicate my “needs and wants in short, often incomplete sentences in present time”. Sounds about right. After two more seven-week sessions I will graduate to the ability to “create short sentences with difficulty in present, past, and future tense” (emphasis added to help lower my expectations). 

Pollo = Chicken
We are both motivated to complete this year-long course of study. Since our move to Mexico was spurred by love of the culture and appreciation of the sensibilities of the people, we plopped ourselves down—without un cocheright in the middle of downtown, not in a gated community on the fringe. So, knowing how to communicate at least on a functional level is part of a necessary skill set to survive. Trying to figure out the signs we see (A que no puede comer solo una on the side of a potato chip deliver truck—"I bet you can't eat just one"), or rehearsing how to ask for an oatmeal raisin cookie (Quisiera una galleta avena y pasa) also helps us feel more at home in this community.

Not quite sure about this one. We've seen bras for sale inside,
so what does the root word bone refer to? Go figure.
For another thing we want to get to know our neighbors, shopkeepers, and people we meet. They’re mostly really friendly people whose lives have been both very different, as well as similar to our own, and we’re curious about them. We’re curious about the happenings around us; we don’t like to be excluded from this knowledge simply because we don’t know how to ask the questions that will—sometimes literally—open the doors. 

We've both taken to our study, though in different ways. My gritty wife has really gotten her teeth into learning, adopting the near obsessive habits of her college days, and spends 2-3 hours—at least—on homework for every hour in the classroom. I’m not quite as committed to the workbook as she is, but find myself continually muttering words and phrases in Spanish as I walk around the village. And most of the time we like to quiz each other, although it's nice having this two-week break between class sessions.

One real bonus we derive from our course is the chance to ask our locally raised teacher, whom we both like very much, questions both about the language and local customs. We’ve found for example that the que le vaya bien often muttered by shopkeepers is the Mexican equivalent of “Have a nice day” (to which you respond with gracias, igualmente), and that you do not refer to people as hombres or mujeres, but as señors or señoras.

So, we’ll continue to struggle over the difference between the two “to be” verbs—ser and estar—and both words used to translate our preposition “for”—por and para: examples, each, of distinctions English doesn’t make, at least in the same way. And we’ll keep in mind this quote from a recent article in The Telegraph about learning languages : “Linguists have found that students with a low tolerance of ambiguity tend to struggle with language learning. Language learning involves a lot of uncertainty – students will encounter new vocabulary daily, and for each grammar rule there will be a dialectic exception or irregular verb. Until native-like fluency is achieved, there will always be some level of ambiguity.”

Update: A year on, I've discovered that it's really not very hard to deliver, in español, a moderately complicated line or two to the cashier, shoe repair man, waitress, driver, or whomever. Then, proud that I've successfully asked for a half pound of ground beef without stuttering and that I would also like a bolsa (bag) for my other groceries, I'm totally flummoxed to be on the receiving end of some rapid firehose Spanish, saying god-knows-what. It's when the mexicanos respond, that's when the gallos are separated from the gallinas.

I've learned to say, "¿Mande?"--not the rude "¿Qué?"--for "Say that again, please". Casting embarrassment aside, I'm also beginning to request that my Mexican amigo speak un poco mas despacio--a little more slowly--and then  to clarify what I do and don't understand. This is especially hard if you're one of those people like me who always wants to appear omniscient. So, we continue to practice and improve as we live our very enjoyable life life here in this beautiful and friendly country.

*This intuitive understanding is borne out by the following info obtained 8/28/15 from 170,000 words in OED, 2d ed. compared to 100,000 words 
in Diccionario de la Real Academia Española.

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