Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Like stepping into a library

Sometimes, when I start really forcing myself to speak Spanish, I start realizing how much of it I really don't know. Obviously, with more confidence, any language learner will enter into increasingly complex conversations and try to use increasingly complex sentence structures. Why have languages developed to be so complex, you might ask? Well, because certain ways of saying things have certain (different) connotations to them that require slight, subtle, or sometimes not-so-slight-or-subtle alterations of expression. Along the course of learning Spanish, for example, I have evolved to be able to say the same thing, but each time, more specific, with more personality.

Basic textbook Spanish
Tengo hambre.
(I am hungry.)

Slightly more advanced texbook Spanish
Tengo mucha hambre. (I am very hungry.)
Tengo muchísima hambre. (I am very, very hungry.)

Colloquial Spanish
Tengo un montón de hambre. (I am really freaking hungry.)

Colloquial Spanish with a twist of humorous exaggeration
¡Ay dios, me muero de hambre! (Oh my god, I'm dying of hunger!)
¡Tengo tanta hambre que me muero! (I have so much hunger that I'm dying!)

I'm sure that there are some weird sayings that are pretty widely known (except by foreigners) that express hunger without even mentioning it. For example, if I were really, really hungry, I don't think it would be out of the question for me to mumble in English (to myself or to others), "Seriously, I could eat a horse." I'll bet there is something along those lines in Spanish.

To tie this all back in, I think there is the same feeling upon realizing how much I don't know in Spanish as there is upon stepping into a library. I realize, all of a sudden, how much information is in a library, and I start wondering, "What's the point? I'm never going to learn all of this, so why bother?" Entering a library can often be a sobering experience, don't you think? So is stepping forward into a different language, into the jumble and our of your comfort zone. It's scary. It's intimidating. It's embarrassing. It really is.

Monday, July 27, 2009

"E" de "elefante"...

Hola, ladies and gents! I'm writing here to report that not only have I been arduously continuing with my Spanish, I have managed to land a job in a bilingual program in which I will be actually teaching in Spanish. Scared? You bet your carne asada I am! At this point, I have worked on my Spanish for so many, many, many hours, that it really is uncountable.

Today, I called up the headquarters (located in Madrid) for a worldwide language school that teaches Spanish in several different Spanish-speaking countries. I had this moment before the phone call picked up in which I deliberated whether I should immediately break into Spanish or request to speak to someone in English (1) out of fear and laziness and (2) to make sure that I wasn't misunderstanding everything.

The call went like this: It started with a woman picking up and saying, ¡Buenos días! and a few other words that translated roughly into "How can I help you?"... which made me wonder how most people would be able to converse with her in Spanish if they were, in fact, calling about taking classes to learn Spanish. ¿Está Antonio? (Is Antonio there?) I asked her. (Aside: I had spoken with Antonio a few weeks prior, in English no less, about his suggestions concerning which countries and schools had the best programs.) No, he was not, she told me.

So, following her lead, I launched awkwardly into Spanish, explaining what I had already discussed with Antonio. She wound up connecting me with Marco to further help me, and I continued the awkwardness there. Now, I need to stop and make a distinction: At this point, I don't have butterflies in my stomach anymore when I speak on the phone in Spanish. Furthermore, I'm pretty good at holding my own. What kills me, though, is not being able to see the person's face. So much awkwardness (and I really keep using that word since it is the most suitable for my purposes) can be eliminated with a smile, a clarifying gesture, a nod of the head, that is not even remotely possible via the phone. On top of that, I feel that I can pretty accurately tell people what I need, but have an exceedingly difficult time understanding what they are telling me. I would be lying if I told you that, over the phone, I understand more than 75 percent of the things being said to me. A lot of it sounds mumbly-jumbly. The rest I fill in using the context. I had to stop him several times to ask questions and ask him to repeat certain things or explain certain words he used.

Finally, I told him that if he could email me a lot of the information, as he offered, it would clear up any of the things I perhaps didn't hear correctly. He agreed. But wouldn't you know it, I had to spell out my email address over the phone. Now, anyone reading this who has ever picked up a telephone in the North American continent knows how much of a pain in the neck this can be in English. I grew up hearing my mother's side of phone calls, and have adopted her exact wording, "D as in David... E... S as in Sam..."

But now all of a sudden, I was faced with doing this in Spanish. Before I even got to the second letter, the guy interrupted me, requesting that I give him words to clarify the letters. Uh, bueno... K de... K de... (Uh okay, K as in... K as in...) and for the life of me, I could not think of one Spanish word that started with the letter K. He suggested something agreeable, and then it was on to D. Crap, I couldn't think of anything for that letter either! We went on like this for all nine letters, the conversation sounding very much like a kindergarten discussion of "Hey kids, which words start with this letter?!" and me feeling like I could have essentially thrown all nine years of Spanish study down the inodoro (toilet) for this disastrous ineptitude of mine to play the alphabet game.

¡Qué fracaso! (What a failure!)

The only letter that jumped out at me immediately was E de elefante (E for elephant). I think I ought to collect a list of words to use in case this ever happens again.

Oh, and I might be going to study for a week in Mexico. That's why I called in the first place. Ja! Eso me hace super emocionada!