Tag Archive | "learning Spanish"


Back in the Classroom…

Posted on 21 June 2012 by American expat!

It’s been a year since my last Spanish class, and while I attempted to continue taking classes 2x a week while I was working at an office job here last year, the attempt lasted little more than a month. The job proved to be too unpredictable as far as the hours were concerned and I could rarely make it to class by the 7:45pm break time let alone the 6:30pm starting time.

So now that I am working mostly from home and can manage my own time again, I am back in the classroom 2 hours a day, four times a week, practicing the subjunctive tense and common phrases I do not use but should. The bad thing about reaching the level of proficiency that allows you to communicate with anyone (as long as it doesn’t get too technical)  is that you tend to get stuck at that level. Plus I’d like to be able to have a phone conversation where I don’t process what the person on the other line said until after I hang up.

But I didn’t have much money to spend.  I’ve attended five different schools over the course of 3.5 years and none of them were cheap. Sure some were cheaper than others, but I didn’t have the 100+ per week even the cheapest course wanted for 8 hours a week. Somehow, in my search for discounted Spanish class, I came across a course advertised as “nearly free Spanish lessons” at a well known language school in the center, International House. (In fact, I likely typed that exact phrase into my preferred search engine, so kudos to the SEO manager, your search terms work).

This is the kind of stellar deal I was looking for: 40 Euros for 8 hours a week for three weeks. I had to take a verbal test for placement to sign up with no guarantees the class would be held, but here it is, the end of the second week and I am more than happy with my cheap-o class. It is a teacher training course, so we get a new teacher rotate from the back of the classroom every 20 minutes or so. Some of them are good, some of them suck, and honestly if I were learning some of the things we cover for the very first time, I might be a bit lost. But it’s all review for me and if a particular teacher sucks I just tune out for 20 minutes until the next one takes the front of the class.

What’s more, not only is one of my best friends also in the class, but so are the usual characters that come with a language course in an international city (remember my professions of  love for Japanese students from last year?) Yes, I am in school again and I love it and I love the cast of characters that my nearly free class has presented me, which is comprised of:

  • A stereotypical young German guy who wears socks and sandals to class every day
  • A very polite and correct tiny Japanese woman, who unfortunately is not into fashion though does wear childrens’ shoes because her feet are so dang tiny.
  • A long term resident British guy who started the class on crutches though won’t say what he did to get himself on them.
  • One Russian girl who is totally flummoxed with the social norms here and usually errs on the side of too familiar (i.e.kissing the bank manager on both cheeks after a first 20 minute long meeting with him in the bank. FYI that’s probably a little too intimate for someone you just met in a business setting)
  • The student totally in over their head (every class has one). In this case it’s a black girl from New York who has a lot to say but can’t say it and frequently will throw in English words to emphasize her hand gestures and disconnected words to get a point across (example from last week: “Ya esta! Whatever!” and from this week: “Por supuesto, duh!”) She is probably my favorite, as she has the class laughing daily though doesn’t always know why.
  • The American that doesn’t even attempt a Spanish accent, so speaks and reads Spanish as if they were English words (every class has one of these too, in this case it is my friend)

And finally there is me, the perfectionist, who won’t speak if she doesn’t know (or think she knows) the correct way to say something. Which, of course, isn’t a good thing and I should know that making mistakes is just part of learning. Which is why I am back in the classroom, to try to push through some of that.

But at least I can pride myself on a good accent.  One big secret to sounding more fluent (perhaps more fluent than you actually are) in any language is to imitate the accent. I learned that a long time ago when I lived in Germany-I perfected my accent so well that it took a little while for anyone to guess I was not a native speaker, and even then they could never place me.  Here in Spain,  while it’s clear after a minute I’m not a native speaker because of my limited vocabulary, still no one can ever place me as an American. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not proud of that because I’m some anti-capitalist expat living here because I believe in socialized medicine (which is far from “free” for anyone who works-but don’t get me started on how expensive the shitty healthcare here actually is), I am a patriot through-and-through. I just don’t want to be pegged as one immediately because my accent sucks.

So let’s see if these three weeks brings me any closer knowing when to use the preterito perfecto vs. imperfecto indicativo, or to using the subjunctive tense at all. If not, at least I only lost 40 euros and not 350!

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On Learning Castellano

Posted on 27 April 2011 by American expat!


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 “The Sharks”, another team chose “Lightening Bolts”, and a third team, who happened to all be Japanese students, chose the very sporting title of “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- BEEu). 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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