On Learning Castellano

Something happened in Spanish class the other day that got me thinking about languages.

Whenever you mention to Americans that you speak another language, the first question usually asked is “are you fluent?” But really, how do you answer that question? Do they mean: Can you order stuff in a restaurant? Have a conversation in the supermarket? How about on the phone? Argue about politics? Each of those things take a different level of language understanding to which you could truthfully answer Yes to the question of fluency. When I learned German, I got to a point where I was dreaming in the language and forgetting words in English. I was fully immersed in the language, and also a lot younger, which makes a difference. Of course, I immediately forgot all of the language I spent over a year learning upon leaving the country.

When I moved to Spain at the end of 2008, I fully expected to be dreaming in Spanish in six months. Two and a half years later, I am finally reaching a level of proficiency where I no longer avoid certain social situations because I know there would only be Spanish spoken and I will not be able to hold up a conversation. Try that for three or four hours and you’ll understand that more than once a week is too mentally exhausting not to mention humiliating.

So I’ve been diligently attending four hour, five day a week Spanish classes since November (though I cannot make it every week, for example I took a six week break in December/January because I was in the US). I’ve been two three different schools of varying excellence or lack thereof. I also study every day for another hour. This is how much work it takes to learn a new language as an adult. There is no learning by osmosis just because you are surrounded by another language. You will invariably seek out your native language speakers at some point just to feel a connection with with people.

But classes are great, I love going to school. I feel totally at home with the wake up, go to class, study at home, go practice with someone in person over a coffee routine.  (Maybe that’s why I spent 5 years in University and another 2 in graduate school. Or maybe that was just to avoid getting a real job, I don’t know.) I love the international microcosm that the classes hold.  And I especially love when Japanese students are in the class. Not only because their cultural references are so different from the rest of the Western world (we picked a team name of Sharks, another team chose Bolts, and a third team who happen to all be Japanese students chose Mountain), but their fashion sense is awesome. Last year, I had a girl in class who one day wore giant clip on earrings, tube socks with shorts, and big Roy Orbison style black framed glasses with no lenses – just the frames. And that was just one day of many such delightfully fashionable outfits.

So anyway, my story about the other day: We had an exercise to do in class involving creating a name, slogan and advertising points for a fictional business to open in town. My partner (another American) and I chose “Internacional Casa de Pancakes”, our direct ripoff of IHOP, which would probably not be well received in any way by the Spanish since 1) they do not eat pancakes 2) they think our coffee is shit (which is true) 3)  their idea of syrup, indeed of anything sweet when it comes to breakfast, is either chocolate or caramel, and only chocolate or caramel 4) they don’t really eat butter either. So blueberry syrup on a stack of pan fried doughy disks with butter would be triply repulsive. But we persevered nonetheless, and we put blueberry syrup in our list of features to lure in the clientele. Except no one understood the word I was absolutely, positively sure was the word for blueberry.

I said to the teacher over and over: Mirtillo. Mirtillo! I spelled it out. No one recognized the word or what I was trying to describe. Finally the doubt crept in. Maybe those are the red berries, not the blue ones?  The teacher told me arándano. I looked it up: arándano. Where had mirtillo come from?

As you know, there are two official languages in this region, and occasionally, especially with food because I learn the names in the markets but sometimes words to do with household related things, I learn and use the Catalan word for something. Finca instead of edificio for building, pruna instead of ciruela for plum, and I don’t even know I’m using a Catalan word. Here, if you are speaking Spanish and throw in a few Catalan words, it goes unnoticed as everyone does that anyway. So I figured, ah ha, I used the Catalan word and my teacher is from Peru, so she didn’t recognize the word.

But I just looked up the word in Catalan for blueberry. It’s nabiu (nah- BEE). Mirtillo is Italian. I’m mixing three languages. I sound like my boyfriend when he tries to speak Spanish – it starts out OK then degenerates into a big mess of Italian/Spanish/Catalan. Everyone understands him, so it’s fine, and he doesn’t care in the slightest. But I want fluidity. I want no one to be able to detect where I am from and I want smooth, unhalted conversations on complex topics.

So I may be studying for the rest of my life. If nothing else just to keep what I have already learned in my head. But I like school, so I’m OK with that.

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Spanish TV is Painful.

Since I’m on a “Complain about Spain” streak, let me complain about television over here. I’m not much of a TV watcher, but I do try to use it to enhance my listening skills and vocabulary. But there are three things I absolutely cannot stand about Spanish television that inevitably will make me turn it off after a few channel rotations:

1. Dubbing television shows and movies here is standard. Now, I cannot stand dubbing in the first place. Give me sub titles any day or make me try to figure out the story on my own by looking at the images.

But the problem is not the dubbing in itself. It is that there are two people (one man, one woman) who do all the language dubbing for programs bought from foreign (American) markets. I am so sick of hearing their voices I want to scream. And not only because they are overused voice “actors” and rarely fit the character on the program. And also not because I know that Brad Pitt does not sound like a 50 year old radio announcer.

It’s because they aren’t actors at all. I swear they don’t even try. They sound like two people reading a bedtime story to some kid, altering their voices to portray different characters and doing a shitty, lazy job of it. Imagine whiny, cranky sounding whimpering when someone on Law and Order is weeping over someone’s death. I’ll wait. OK, got it? It’s worse than that.

2. The music put to news stories never has anything to do with the story. Example. Today a story about a credit card scam was backed by – ready for this bit of production genius? – Huey Lewis and the News, Power of Love. I am serious, and this is not an anomaly. That dumb-ass song has the line “don’t need no credit card to ride this train”. And therefore the professional editors felt it appropriate to use this jaunty tune to enhance a story of thievery.

Another brilliant example is the use of the 1960s song “California Dreamin'” every. single. time. the state of California is mentioned. And as a location too, not the subject of a story. If you must have the word California in a song, there are around 700 other songs to choose from. Does another, more un-newsworthy song exist with the word California in it? No. And how amateur (or lazy?) is it to just use a song about California instead of the theme of the actual story? Where do these media people learn their craft?

3. Did I mention there are only 2 people working in the dubbing department for every single movie, Simpson’s episode and Sex and the City re-run? Because there are. Only two. Ridiculous.

4. Belen Esteban with her bright yellow, home hair-dye job, and her horrible, smoke ravaged, heavily made up face with it’s protruding lips and eyeballs is on the TV constantly. Girl, I have some advice for you: skip the lip collagen and plastic surgery and invest in some Botox, and maybe a facial peel or two. It may also be time to start using some sunblock. (Note: link on her name goes to a Facebook page dedicated to her “old” face, the one before she lost a lot of weight, had a bunch of plastic surgery, and evidently started smoking so much and baking in the sun Enjoy.)

I think I’ll stick to the news for practicing my listening skills, since the irrelevant music is the least offensive of the three crimes. I’ll just crank up the volume and sing along with Huey next time one of his songs backs a story (which is often) since it’s gonna remain in my head for the next week regardless.

Or at least until California is mentioned in the news again.