07 September 2009

Los Verbos

I am posting a little progress report here on my Spanish. I could write forever about this but will try to keep a lid on it.

Obviously, I have undertaken this project without any formal instruction. There is a big difference between my approach and that approach. With formal instruction one studies the language in books and supplements that with a few simulated street sessions. I am doing street sessions supplemented by book study. I have been totally embarrassed several times upon realizing exactly what had spilled out of my mouth in speaking with one or another Mexican in Spanish. How did they keep a straight face, I wonder?

But ya gotta be fearless.

At age 62 I find this problem with book study as a way of increasing vocabulary. When one attempts to learn words within no context whatsoever it is very difficult to make them stick in your head first and foremost. Secondly and directly related to my first point, you can confuse words that you learned at the same time out of a book even though those words are entirely unrelated.

I have an acquaintance who learned the words mariscos, meaning seafood, and maricones, a derogatory term for gay men, at the same time. Shortly thereafter in a discussion with a waiter, he said maricones when he intended to say mariscos. I have done the very same thing but thankfully with different words. The point is that you find yourself saying some of the most ridiculous things because of this problem.

Context is everything. Words that one learns reading billboards, packages, the text of TV commercials, storefront signs, and the like stick better. The problem there is that when you read a word in the street, like the word for hardware store for instance, you want to practice saying it. If you are not careful, you can look like the village idiot walking down the street talking to yourself.

In the three months I have been here, a Mexican has corrected my Spanish exactly once. That had to do with when to say buenos dias, buenas tardes, and buenas noches, which is an art and not a science by the way. I believe they consider it bad manners to correct you, although I certainly would not be offended. And let's face it. Sometimes they haven't the faintest idea what you are trying to say. Nor do they ask you to repeat stupid things when they clearly heard what you said. Their usual approach when you say something stupid is to stare at you silently with a blank face and wait. When you encounter two or three long seconds of expressionless silence, you know it is time to regroup. On the other hand they will certainly help you if you ask for help.

That brings me to these goddamned verbs. The effort expended learning the names of things and adjectives and adverbs pales in comparison to the effort necessary to learn to conjugate these verbs. In Spanish as in any romance language, as many of you well know, there are verbs of regular conjugation. These can be conjugated using modifications to the infinitive that are relatively easily learned. Then there are the irregular verbs that follow no pattern of conjugation. None. The simple first person present tense of "to be" is soy. The simple first person past tense of "to be" is fui. You are reduced to brutal, rote memorization here. The problem is that the verbs you need to use the most are the irregular ones, to go, to have, to make, to be, to come, etc.

This is all complicated by the fact that Spanish has 14 different tenses of verbs, seven simple and seven compound, plus the imperative—the commands. There is not enough life left to me to master all those tenses. I have my doubts as to whether many Mexicans have mastered them all either.

For the first two months here I spoke only in the present. This gets you by in the grocery stores and restaurants and other places of that sort. I had not yet acquired enough nouns and adjectives and adverbs to have a conversation anyway. But to have a little conversation is what you really want to do, isn't it? I mean that's the whole point. So during the entire month of August until now, I have been laboring over the simple future tense and the simple past tense of these verbs. There is a trick involved here that has made it a bit simpler than I anticipated, but I won't bore you with that—those of you who have not given up on this entry out boredom already, that is.

Lastly, the little sprinkles on the cake are the idiomatic expressions, the phrases that when translated literally make little sense but are the very stuff of conversations. You do not sleep either face down or face up here. You sleep either mouth down or mouth up. Actually, that makes a little sense literally. We say, "It's sunny." Mexicans say literally, "It makes sun." We do not pull people's legs here. We pull their hair. An American might say, “I'm not biting on that,” whereas a Mexican would say, “Go to another dog with that bone.” We say, "I am hot." Mexicans say "I have heat." If a Mexican literally says, "I am hot," he or she is probably conveying something sexual. And on and on. There are thousands of idiomatic phrases that literally make even less sense than these, as there are in any language. Talk about brutal, rote memorization.

Whenever I get discouraged, I simply ponder this. At least I am not a Spanish-speaking person attempting to learn English. Jesus, I do not know how they do it.


Candy Minx said...

Your thoughts on how you learn, practicing wit Spanish...different ways to approach i found absolutely fascinating.

mister anchovy said...

I too am fascinated. I would love to speak another language.

When I was growing up, my mother spoke Polish, but since my father didn't speak it, she only spoke the language when talking on the phone with her sisters, when she didn't want us kids to know what they were talking about. Due to lack of practice, there were holes in her Polish, where she inserted English words, enough that sometimes we could piece together the gist of the conversation. Of course we knew how to swear. We learned that quickly.

I lived for several years in an area of Toronto I'll call "Little Azores", an area populated with a lot of Portuguese immigrants, many of them from the Islands. I got to know a lot of people who were working on learning English. One thing I noticed was that those who went about it with confidence did way better than those who were nervous about it because they were willing to take chances and screw up rather than avoid the problem. Tenses, syntax and idioms were often a challenge for some of these people but at the same time, often I was surprised at the breadth of their vocabularies. In this community, I never heard of anyone going to school for English. The people who interacted outside their own tight-knit community learned way quicker than those who were more insular.

Sheila said...

Beunas Senor Steve, Muy interesante. Yo hablo un poco espanol tambien, solo lo suficiente para ser une turista. Ahora yo apprendo Hindi, so I know your difficultly with tenses and idioms! C'est tres difficile por apprendre une autre langue por moi mais maintenant le francais est ma meilluere. Persevere, you'll get there, buena suerte!

I've always found people really helpful when you try, and it doesn't matter if it is not perfect as long as you communicate with each other. If I've recommended these to you before forgive my bad memeory but I do rave about Michel Thomas Language Courses they are totally audio, no learnign by rote - you'd like them I think. To my mind they are brilliant, unfortunately no Hindi one and none planned, but the French one really helped me gain confidence to speak the language and to attempt things I'd not practice, ie to get beyond the tourist prattle.

Please give us another account later as to how your ffluency is progressing.
Hasta luego!

Ruth said...

Spanish was the language I studied in high school and college (including all those pesky irrgulars.) But despite several years of study, and despite living in Southern California, I don't speak it well. You have an advantage I never did--being forced to use it in everyday transactions. I'm sure you'll come away from this time with a grasp of the language rooted deep where it should be, deep in the mind and heart.

Señor Steve said...

Gosh, what interesting and thoughtful comments all! I am shocked that y'all read this entry through.

Some years ago in the bad old days, I enrolled in a semester of Beginning Spanish at a local community college. $60.00. But I had forgotten how satisfying it was to skip a college level class. I made it to the first class. I spent the scheduled time for every other class in a bar celebrating the fact that I was skipping Spanish class.

mr. anchovy, your comments about the Portuguese immigrants is so perspicacious. You really do gotta be fearless in this kind of endeavor. Every time you give in an inch to fear, in the words of David Crosby, you lose another opportunity to learn something.

The one area I have given up on temporarily is speaking Spanish on the telephone, what with the usual poor sound quality, the absence of facial expressions, gestures, and all. It is impossible at this point. Someday.

Sheila said...

I agree telephones are just terrible for speaking in a second language, especially if reception is not good anyway. I really struggle when calling Algeria, it is so expensive and whatever we need to say just takes so long without those non verbal clues. Skype with video is better as long as you either both have internet service or have access to an internet cafe on a regular basis.