Life On The Road: Learning Spanish

Learning Spanish has been an interesting process. I have made rapid progress, but it has really highlighted just how strange the brain can be at times. Take, for example, a very common situation where I am trying to understand a conversation between two people. What happens internally in my brain goes something like this….


Person #1: Produces a random babble of sounds.
Me (conscious thought): Huh?
Me (subconscious thought): It’s Spanish, dolt!
Me (conscious): So what is he saying?
Me (subconscious): How should I know, his pronunciation is weird!
Me (conscious): Well, give it a try anyways….
Me (subconscious): Too late, I’ve forgotten what was said
Person #1: Still production a random babble of sounds.
Me (conscious): Get that one?
Me (subconscious): Give me a break, this is hard work interpreting this guy’s pronunciation!
Person #1: Producing almost comprehensible sounds.
Me (subconscious): Hey, I think I got that one!
Me (conscious): Well, what does it mean?
Me (subconscious): Um, “The blue sparrow is having a car”?
Me (conscious): What!?!?
Me (subconscious): I’m working on it!
Person #1: (continues talking)
Me (conscious): Work faster, he is still talking!
Me (subconscious): Got it: “I had a very good time at the-”
Me (conscious): At the what?
Me (subconscious): How should I know?
Person #1: (continues talking)
Me (conscious): Well, you are the one in charge of providing me with meaning….
Me (subconscious): You wish, that was more than a minute ago now and I was too busy to listen.
Person #2: Produces a random babble of sounds.
Me (conscious): Ok, forget it. What is this one saying?
Me (subconscious): How should I know, his pronunciation is weird!
Me (conscious): Hold it, didn’t we just go through this?
Me (subconscious): Yep. But this is someone new!
Person #2: (continues talking)
Me (conscious): Sigh. Just let me know when you have a translation…
Me (subconscious): Too late, he just finished.
Person #1: Produces an almost random babble of sounds.
Me (conscious): Well quick, focus on this! You already understand how he talks.
Me (subconscious): You wish. That was before person #2 jumped in. Now I have to start all over.
Me (conscious): Sigh.
Me (subconscious): Quiet, I’m trying to concentrate here!


And so it goes. It improves over time. Until person #3 joins in and I get to start all over from scratch. Again.

Believe it or not, this infuriating process is actually an improvement. Producing meaning out of what people say takes time, but I rarely translate to English. That is a big step forward because merely understanding is a far simpler task than actual translation. I just don’t have that understanding at an instinctual level yet, it takes time for the meaning to register.

Speaking is, of course, a whole separate challenge. It is remarkably difficult to speak and think at the same time. I am used to letting my mouth run on autopilot after deciding what to say, but that does not work at my current level of learning Spanish. At best, my pronunciation reverts to English sounds. At worst, I end up saying random words that have no relation to what I intended to say.

Reading is a lot easier. At museums, I find I can understand the vast majority of what is written about the exhibits. I don’t know anywhere close to all the words, but I can pick out the meaning from context. If I take my time I can even produce a translation. It is a difficult process requiring an enormous amount of concentration, but it works surprisingly well.

Then, of course, I get tired from the continuous concentration and everything, written and spoken alike, turns to gibberish again. Argh!

This whole process would be a lot easier if I were content merely to learn what is needed to travel (already done), rather than actually learning the language.

The learning process itself is interesting as well. Nick and I may have been in the same class, but we took different routes. I had listened to many hours of Michel Thomas and already had a strong understanding of basic grammar, verb conjugation, pronunciation, etc. Nick came with far less knowledge than I, but soon after starting he moved in with a local family.

We progressed through those two weeks at more or less the same rate, but with a few key differences. I quickly became better at reading. Nick, however, quickly surpassed me in spoken conversation. I’m not certain how much this is personality and how much is the difference in how we learned.

Then, of course, when I find people who speak English the temptation to revert is overwhelming because I simply do not have the words to express myself in Spanish.

Working against me in this whole process is my natural introvert nature. Talking to random people is most definitely not among my natural personality traits. Though doing so would certainly help out enormously.

Oh well, I will get there eventually. Probably just in time to start learning the next language….

11 comments to Life On The Road: Learning Spanish

  • Grant

    ¡Buena suerte!

    Tal vez debería intentar escribir un poco de cada entrada en español?

    The fact that you are not translating first to English is good; it means you are going directly to fluency. 🙂

    • othalan

      Pensé en escribir en español, pero lo está muy lento todavía. Mi preferencia está para un blog interesante, pero esto no está posible si escribo en español. Viajar por mucho meses no está un vacaciones y tiempo para escribir no es fácil encontrar!

  • Grant

    Well, I feel good in that I could actually understand most of that without having to ask Dizzy for help. He helped me with “pensé”, “lento todavia” and “viajar” (I only knew “vamos”).

    Not bad at all, sir! But after looking up “viajar” and “vamos” for conjugation, and seeing how nasty they are, I said, “¡Oy vay! There, that’s a good Spanish word!” And Dizzy replied, “¡O, si, Mi amigo esta un Mensch!”

    • othalan

      And here I thought that with a last name like yours, you would be a good native Hispanic speaker to practice with! 🙂
      (note to others, Grant has not much more Hispanic/Spanish background than I do).

      The verb “ir” (from which you get “vamos”) is unusual in its complexity. Spanish is actually remarkably easy to conjugate verbs…easier than German for the most part!

      The actual words, conjugation, and structure I found far simpler than either French or German. The hard part is in pronunciation, which needs to be far more exact than any language I’ve encountered.

  • margaret

    I am impressed with your reading/writing of Spanish. I also have spent endless hours on Michel Thomas, both the first set (8 CDs) and advanced (5 CDs). My French reading and writing is nearly non-existant. Yes, French verb conjugation is rediculously complicated.

    • othalan

      Here is an interesting site for improving foreign languages, but they currently only support Spanish, English, and German:

      http://tryandsay.com

      The premise is fantastic. There are “challenges” which are either learning vocabulary, grammar, or phrases. For each “challenge”, you write have three types of responses to work through, write out the word/phrase based on your native language version, listen and write out the phrase, or speak the phrase to work on pronunciation. I only just found the site and started working through the exercises, but I like it a lot so far!

    • othalan

      Yes, I hate French verb conjugation. German is nice. Spanish is in some ways easier than German, but the exceptions are uglier and slightly more common.

    • margaret

      French verb conjugations are no fun. Way too complicated, but at least there are rules, and few enough exceptions to fit them onto Michel Thomas’ CDs.

      French spelling seems to have no rhyme or reason. One building I’m in at Geneva is called “Montbrilliant.” This is pronounced something like “Moh-bree-oh”. What happend to the first “NT” and subsequent “LL”? I get that ending consonants are ignored, but why usually and not always?

      Anyway, I am glad to hear that Spanish is easier. The website you mention sounds wonderful!

  • Elizabeth

    I am also amazed at how you have picked up Spanish!! And am glad that you are writing in English. For those of us that don’t speak a lick of Spanish. (Except to ask where the bathroom is, for more water, and that I don’t speak Spanish.) 🙂

    I for one found German amazingly easy. But then I must be the odd one out… I’ve got a few books in German though reading them is slow going because of the time it has been since I’ve read much. My spoken is much better but by no means perfect. Maybe I should get some German CD’s etc to listen to on the ride home instead of reading…

  • Mom

    Bavarian German is also another impossible variation on learning. Luckily, natives speak High German to foreigners! Does Spanish have something similar?

    Also, does being a more visual person make the reading of another language easier or is the reading being a better skill the actual mechanism? I also suspect that David is speaking to more people now than in his USA excursions. In Ireland and France, I asked 3 or 4 people for help, then combined the understandable bits for my decision!

    • othalan

      Well, I would put it more accurately that I babble incoherently at people a lot more now than I used to. 🙂

      Spanish does clearly have different dialects, and I expect to experience a whole lot of them as I travel. In Mexico City, the people were almost impossible to understand, even when speaking slowly. That went both ways….they could not understand me either most of the time, no matter how carefully I spoke. Now that I am in Puebla, it is much easier. The accent is different (again), but I can actually understand people and be understood. I’m not certain they actually speak Spanish in Mexico City now I think about it….

      I suppose there is an equivalent to “High German”, which would be the formal version of the language taught in schools. However, that is not spoken as a “separate language” by people as you describe in Germany. It seems more like English in the USA, where accents simply vary with location, sometimes in extreme ways.

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