Tag Archives: learning Spanish

Language Matters: Do You Sound Like Yourself?

I whine and I complain. Although I know darn well that there’s no point. The only thing that will fix it is time, patience, and perseverance.

I’m talking about my Spanish.

At this stage, I’m not exactly getting a lot of sympathy either. The consensus among my Spanish friends seems to be that my Spanish is “good”.

That’s certainly very kind of them, I appreciate the thumbs up and a pat on the back just like the next person, but I don’t agree, and it’s got nothing to do with false modesty. What they are doing is comparing their English to my Spanish, and of course my Spanish would be better than their English, because most of my pals have never been to an English speaking country other than for a brief holiday. I, on the other hand, actually live here in Spain and need to use the language on a daily basis. In other words, they are comparing apples to oranges.

I wasn’t really sure how to convey the nature of my discontent succinctly, until, about a month ago, I came across this quote by jazz musician genius Miles Davis:

“Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”


Now, I cannot read a musical score, never mind hold a note, but the direct parallel for me as a language learner is quite striking.

What I want, quite simply, is to sound like myself when I communicate in Spanish.

My level of frustration is directly proportional to the discrepancy between what I am able to say and what I want to say. My conversation partners are largely unaware of my internal battle; what they hear coming out of my mouth are (fairly) intelligible sentences. On a good day.

What they don’t hear are all the words and thoughts that died a silent death on the way. I avoid “risky” grammatical constructions, and that great expression I stumbled across in a book last night and which would come in so handy right now, has left the memory banks for good. I sound like I’m cranking up a spluttering, second-hand speech generator by its rusty handle instead of being plugged into the mains.

Those unsuspecting friends of mine remain blissfully ignorant of the colourful diatribes that ricochet through my brain. My unvented sarcasm pools, like congealed blood, at the back of my throat, never reaching the vocal chords. My true personality thrashes around, bound and gagged, in the frayed straightjacket of my linguistic incompetence. Which goes a lot towards explaining, I guess, why people are still willing to hang out with me.

The unnerving – but also exciting! – dimension of this is that I’ve no idea, as yet, what I’ll sound like in Spanish once I do actually manage to sound like myself.

For me, there is no joy in staying on the well-trodden path, in regurgitating prefabricated phrases. What I love is messing around with words. But rather than contorting the Spanish language into a dissonant artifact that is going to grate native speakers’ eardrums to shreds, I’m dying to inject a dash of originality here and there, to break the rules in a way that is only possible once you actually know the rules. To have fun with language is an integral part of my being, and as long as I can’t do that, I’m just not going to sound like myself.

It is difficult to explain this process to someone who hasn’t been through it themselves. Some bi/multilingual people will describe it as “having different personalities in different languages”. This doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head, though. For one, it makes it sound like we have a mental disorder.

To me, fully integrating another language feels more like having a new module, a powerful processor, the mother of a mega-chip, hardwired into your PersonalityCPU. As the new part gradually comes to life, it starts to fuse organically with the existing linguistic units. Once the process is complete, they are quite capable of running independently of each other, while, at the same time, forming a multidirectional information superhighway so much bigger than the sum of its constituent parts. If this sounds like a paradox, that’s because it is. It leaves you forever changed, yet it’s still the same you.

When I look back at the first two monolingual decades of my life, it seems like I’d been cramped into a titchy hovel. Then Project English came along, adding not only a swish kitchen, but a whole new storey to the building.

Right now, I’m constructing a verandah, a conservatory, a patio, a pool – I’m landscaping an entire garden, in fact. As we all know, building works are a messy affair. There’s piles of rubble, mountains of dust, and raw, ploughed-up earth that is going to need smoothing over and planting.

But I’ll get there. In a few years’ time, I’ll be watering my lush flower beds and munching on my freshly harvested strawberries, while chattering to my Spanish neighbours across the fence. And I’ll sound just like myself.


You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com


The Writing’s On The Wall…

When I got back from Key West a couple of weeks ago, I found this wedged into my bathroom window:

"For Sale or For Rent"

“For Sale or For Rent”

Although I didn’t know the sign was going to be there, it wasn’t exactly a huge surprise. While we were on our Christmas break together in Lisbon, I told (my landlady) Sofía that I was planning on leaving Toledo this spring. She said she would put up the place for sale very soon, because it would probably take ages to shift it.

Ever since Spain’s construction bubble burst its overbloated, bribe-infested guts in 2008, selling property has become extremely difficult. The same goes for finding tenants. With a youth unemployment rate of around 55%, young people have little choice but to keep living with their parents. Forever.

The local housing situation is probably worst in Toledo old town, which, although of overwhelming rustic beauty, is very inconvenient for daily living, to put it mildly. Car access is restricted, parking (even a bike) is virtually impossible, the internet is excruciatingly slow, noise travels like through a megaphone, burst water pipes are a monthly occurrence. And let’s not talk about the horrors of cockroach season. In its glorious past as Spain’s capital, Toledo’s historic centre was home to 30,000 people. The present headcount is around 9,000 and dwindling.

When I moved here in 2011, I knew that Toledo wasn’t going to be my home forever. I was reluctant to move to a big city first off, because I didn’t want to get sucked into the parallel universe that is the expat community. My prime objective for moving to Spain was (and is) to learn Spanish, a feat more easily achieved in a small-ish town with few foreigners skipping about. And this strategy has, on the whole, worked quite well for me.

My linguistic obsessions aside, I’ve been finding it hard to build a satisfying life for myself in Toledo. Having said that, I’ve made a bunch of lovely friends here, I certainly don’t want to poo-poo that.

Essentially, what it boils down to, is this: I miss London. Or maybe not London per se, but what it represents: A bustling capital, where the whole world is at home. I miss having an extensive array of cultural and educational offerings and, even more importantly, convenient access to food from all over the planet right on my doorstep. Toledo may have the most succulent tortillas, the tastiest hams, the most flavoursome of (Manchego) cheeses, the smokiest of picante chorizo….

…but every once in a while, all I want is  some decent sushi. Or proper Chinese food from northern China, not that generic gloopy pap that is served up in Chinese restaurants all over the world (except in China). I want a curry that’s actually HOT. I want grocery shops that sell coconut milk, brown basmati rice, soba noodles, rice crackers, pitch-black German wholegrain bread. I want a cake that’s not a flippin’ muffin or a brownie.

Also, I feel the need to connect with a small handful of expats like myself. The blogs are great, but they only go so far. I miss speaking German with people who are not my family. I want to speak REAL English with a Brit who shares my set of cultural (UK) references and unsanitary vocab. I need people who understand, on an emotional as well as on a practical level, what it’s like to move countries.

Some of you may vaguely remember a post I wrote almost a year ago, contemplating Barcelona as my next destination. Well, after a lot of umming and ahing, I decided against it. Why? Because it’s not compatible with The Prime Directive, i.e. getting to grips with Spanish good and proper. Although Castilian Spanish is, according to what I’ve been told, sufficient for navigating Barcelona, it is the capital of Catalonia, and the official language there is Catalan. If you’ve been watching the news, you will know that the whole issue is politically very sensitive. I might well encounter situations where people in Barcelona will reply to me in English rather than in Castilian. I’ve consulted with my besieged brain, and it threatened me,  in no uncertain terms, with a permanent nervous breakdown if assaulted by yet another language.

To be honest, I simply lack the motivation right now to pour tons of effort into learning a “boutique” language spoken by so few people, but it would bug me no end if I couldn’t understand the signs and conversations around me, and if, when out with a group of local friends, they’d be forced to switch languages in order to include me in their conversation. It would make me feel like I was right back at square one, and after having worked so hard at it over the past couple of years.

So, Madrid it is. It may not be as beautiful as Barcelona, and there’s not a beach in sight, but it offers a number of advantages, besides speaking the right language. For instance:

  • It is close to Toledo (just 80km away), so I will still be able to see my friends fairly regularly. They like going to Madrid for things like exhibitions, food, cinema.
  • My Portuguese teacher, who I’m growing rather fond of, also teaches in Madrid, so I can keep up my lessons with her. Besides, I shouldn’t have any trouble finding some willing Portuguese bods in Madrid for language intercambios. I’ve not managed to find anyone in Toledo.
  • Most of my friends in Toledo have lived in Madrid and some are actually from there, so I can tap them for local knowledge and contacts.
  • Madrid has excellent public transport connections to the rest of Spain (and, of course, the rest of the world). I don’t have a car, and I detest driving, so this is a huge plus point.

I’m in no immediate rush to move, but I’d like to be out of here before the beginning of July. I need to do my research… I’m looking for an affordable neighbourhood which has character, but isn’t too grubby.

Do any of you happen to know any Madrid-based bloggers I could cyber-stalk?

No Pain, No Gain: My Spanish After Two Years In Spain

This morning, it came to my attention (thank you, expatsincebirth), that today is the European Day of Languages – the perfect opportunity for posting an update on my linguistic toil.

So, I’ve been living in Spain now for two full years. The official anniversary was September 14th. My main reason for moving to Spain was to learn to speak Spanish properly, which had been a dream of mine since my teenage years.

Where am I in this process? Well, in short, not where I’d like to be.

After two years, my command of the language is at a point I thought I’d have reached after year one.

There’s one overarching reason for this: lack of exposure. This may sound ironic, considering that I’m living slap bang in the centre of Spanish-speaking country. But the reality is that I work at home on my own pretty much all day, reading and writing in English. Most of the people I see socially want to practice either their English or their German, for at least some of the time, which is only fair (and fun!), seeing as a shared interest in language learning brought us together in the first place.

I do feel frustrated much of the time about my slow progress, but, as I have to keep reminding myself in order not to lose heart, I am making progress.

My latest milestone: I’m reading grown-up books!

About six months ago, I started reading novels, which is something I wasn’t brave enough to tackle up until then. Having to look up every other word is just not an enjoyable experience, and I think it’s better to wait until you can comprehend at least 70-80% of standard written material unaided.

On that note, I still remember reading my first book in English, I must have been about 17. It was Charlotte’s Web (by E.B. White). It’s an iconic classic children’s novel, and I struggled like hell. I understood just about enough for it to make me cry, though I think I was already crying out of frustration before I got to the sad bit. I didn’t touch another book in English for several years after that.


In my humble opinion, e-readers are the greatest invention of all time ever. And it will stay this way until they start making Nutella in squeezy bottles.

Now, I don’t want zillions of comments about the sanctity of paper books, so save it, people. I love ‘real’ books just as much as you do. But for language learning, the e-reader is a gift of the heavens. It lets me download books in different languages, there’s no waiting around for deliveries (which always come when I’m soaping myself down in the shower, and then I’ve got to waste hours in Toledo’s post office, where one lone middle-aged sour puss dawdles away the days until her retirement behind the counter, while one pointless uniformed oaf just stands in front of it, with pretty much the same objective. Why is Spain in the middle of an economic crisis? Spend one afternoon in that post office, and all becomes clear. Periodically, they run out of stamps – and this is the main PO of Castilla La-Mancha’s capital city!!!).

OK, end of pet rant, and back to e-reader fangirling. A swift download is only the start. The true miracle lies in the power of the integrated dictionaries. (Move over, talking burning bush in the desert.)

I bought my Spendle (actually, it’s Amazon’s Kindle, but Spendle is so much more apt, sigh…), and the gadget came pre-loaded with dictionaries in five languages. These are monolingual ones, though, and so aren’t of much use in languages where proficiency is still lacking. Luckily, bilingual dictionaries in the world’s major languages are cheap, so a Spanish-English one for five bucks was my first purchase.

Now all I have to do when I  collide with an unknown word is to point at it accusingly (frowning is optional), and the translation pops up. Oh my, what a marvel compared to thumbing through a paper dictionary – a practice abandoned sometime during the late Cretaceous period, I realise! – but I remember those days only too well.

What have I read?

El Esclavo de la Al-Hamrá, by Blas Malo Poyatos: An historical novel set in Spain and North Africa in the fourteenth century. I made it to 38%, then aborted the mission. It wasn’t so much that I found the language too challenging, but I just didn’t care about any of the characters. And I can’t get through a 464-pager just for the sake of accumulating vocabulary about the smells of the souk and bloody medieval clobberings between Moors, Jews and Christians.

Suicidio Perfecto, by Petros Márakis: Who-dunnit set in Athens. I’m not an aficionado of crime novels (which is unheard of for a German – they are famously obsessed with their “Krimis”), but this book was on my book club reading list, so I bit the bullet. The plot wasn’t too convoluted, and I found it engaging enough to keep dragging my weary fingertips across every fifth word until I got to the last page. Hurraaah! Success!!!

Maldita, by Mercedes Pinto Maldonado: May the Lord Of The Rings strike me down, this is the kind of tosh that I detest with every fibre of my being. We’re talking damsel-in-distress romantic effluent. BUT for language learning purposes, it was surprisingly useful. Straightforward plot, simplistic characters, you knew exactly what was going to happen next, and to whom. We both made it to the end – me with the utmost relief, and the damsel duly rescued, married and with a bun in the oven. Phew!

La Tumba Perdida, by Ares Nacho: Discovery-thrillery-egyptological lore. Replete with grave robbers, mummies and royal incest. Set in the 1920’s and 1300 BC. I started this last week, am really into it right now, and confident I’ll last the distance.

For language assimilation purposes, as I’m working my way through those books at glacial speed, looking up absolutely everything and highlighting the new vocab and certain sentence constructions, which strike me as useful. The e-reader lets you do that, oh yes! Once I’m done with a book, I’ll go back over the highlighted matter and transfer it into my notebook. A bit labour intensive, but totally worth it.

Apologies for the length of this post! Anyone care to share their foreign language reading exploits, hits and misses? Would love to hear about it 🙂

Language Confusion Buster: ‘Dried Fruit’ Is Not What You May Think It Is

On my arrival in Spain, I noticed that many local shops featured the words “Frutos Secos”, which, directly translated, means ‘dried fruit’, on their signage. It did make me wonder whether dried fruit was the equivalent of hot cakes in Spain, or why else would a little shop keeper spend his hard earned money on advertising this on his (surely quite expensive) shop sign? Here’s a corner shop close to my house in Toledo:

Whatch out! This is the most expensive corner shop in the Western hemisphere. Do not go in there. Ever. Not even for an emergency pack of chewing gum. You'll come out with the shirt ripped off your bleedin' back, missing an arm and a leg. (O un riñon, si eres español.)

Whatch out! This is the most expensive corner shop in the Western hemisphere. Do not go in there. Ever. Not even for an emergency pack of chewing gum. You’ll come out with the shirt ripped off your bleedin’ back, missing an arm and a leg. (O un riñon, si eres español.)

But my bafflement over dried fruits’ powers of customer attraction isn’t really what I was going to talk about. (Besides, I’ve since figured out that “Frutos Secos” is a generic term for this kind or establishment, to which, in the UK, we’d refer to as a “corner shop”.) So, as I discovered a few months down the line, frutos secos are not what an English (or a German) speaker would naturally assume them to be, i.e. this stuff:

DriedFruitNo, for a Spanish speaker, frutos secos is this:


Dried fruit, it turns out, is “fruta deshidratada”, which, at least, is not totally counter-intuitive.

The conundrum was not quite resolved, however. There was yet another twist in store for me.

If frutos secos means nuts, I wondered, I  what the hell are “nueces”?? I I took that to signify nuts. Nuez/Nueces sounds just like nut/nuts and Nuss/Nüsse in English and German, respectively.

Una nuez

Una nuez

Well, it turns out that nueces, in fact, are walnuts, and not nuts in general. Up to that point, I’d been referring to all kinds of nuts as nueces. Ooops.

As to the difference between fruto and fruta: Fruta is what you will find in a fruit bowl, while fruto is a more general term describing not only nuts and inedible fruits produced by all manner of plants, but also the “fruits” of one’s labours (el fruto de tus labores), the fruit of Mary’s blessed womb aka Jesus (el fruto de tu vientre), etc.

Have you been using a word in another language incorrectly for ages, only to discover much later that it was, in fact, one of those treacherous ‘false friends’?

Prepositions – So Much Depends Of Them

Nine out of ten times, when a sentence just doesn’t make any flippin’ sense, even though you know all the words, it’s because of the evil workings of a preposition.

Compared to the masses of verbs, nouns and adjectives that exist in a language, the number of prepositions is miniscule.  European languages have, on average, what, maybe thirty…? And yet, using those pesky little words correctly takes longer to learn than anything else. It’s also the first thing that goes when you lose regular contact with a language.

English phrasal verbs (which are, essentially, verbs married to prepositions) are infamous for making students despair. Take the verb “to look” as a random example: Look at, look for, look out for, look about, look over, look after… the preposition completely changes the meaning every time. English has thousands of phrasal verbs, including colloquial and regional variations that don’t appear in any dictionary.

To make matters worse, many have several, often completely different meanings depending on context. “To make out” is a prime example. Adding the preposition “on” to the phrasal verb “to go down”, gives it a completely new dimension… 😉

Other languages also have phrasal verbs, and plenty of them, Spanish being no exception. It took me ages to figure out, for example, that “dar con”, which literally translates as “to give with”, actually means “to find/encounter”. Makes no intuitive sense whatsoever!

SunsetWhen people are taught German as a foreign language, they are told that specific prepositions often correspond to specific cases, e.g. “mit” (with) always takes the dative. So, if you don’t know the correct preposition to start with, chances are you’ll get all the noun and adjective endings wrong as well, resulting in an irreparably screwed up sentence.

Even in fairly closely related languages like English and German, prepositions do not correspond. In German, you give “after”, not “in” and you depend “of” someone or something. Not all prepositions exist in every language, making translations cumbersome and learners tear their hair out.

It is generally drilled into students to learn prepositions in conjunction with a set of common verbs, e.g. “to concentrate on” and “to insist on” are a couple of classic examples, where only one preposition is viable, but in most cases, are just too many different possibilities for all of them to be learnt by rote.

In short, the only way to get your prepositions down to a pat is by knowing what sounds ‘right’ and what doesn’t. And this, as some of you will have found out, takes aeons of exposure. In fact, I’d say, that it’s impossible to achieve unless you’ve actually been living for years and years and years in a country where the language is spoken.

I Hate Verbs

Spanish is a verb-driven language, I remember reading that somewhere. No kidding. I’m looking at a verb table right now, and every Spanish verb has about 50 versions (not including the compound tenses). English has … what… like…three… or six…?

Basic stuff still has me stumped. In particular, the many baffling incarnations of very common irregular verbs. One quick example to illustrate: Take the verbs dar (to give) and decir (to say). They look very different in the infinitive, right? Apart from starting and ending with the same letter, they seem to have sod all in common, and you’d be unlikely to confuse them. But you wait…

If you want to say “tell me!”, decir suddenly morphs into “dime!” (imperative) or “digame!” (subjunctive), and when you want to say “I gave” and “we gave” then “dar” turns into “di”  and “dimos“, respectively. All over sudden, dar becomes decir‘s evil twin! This kind of thing happens all over the place, and even after over a year and a half in Spain, confusion abounds.

But I’m not alone. One of my longstanding language exchange partners mentioned a couple of days ago how her three-year-old son was getting most of the verbs wrong by tarring all of them indiscriminately with the regular-verb brush. That poor little blighter will soon enough have the last remaining shred of common sense corrected out of him.

And yes, those red flecks on the white cover are, in fact, blood.

And yes, those red flecks on the white cover are, in fact, blood.

Over the years, I’ve been poring for countless hours over gaps in textbooks demanding to be filled with the correct form of a verb. I’ve never enjoyed it, not even one little bit. It was a necessary evil. And despite all this effort, these endless permutations refuse to stick to my Teflon-plated brain.

I’ve about 90+% comprehension at this point, and I can discuss complex topics, but I still grind to a halt regularly while struggling to produce the right flippin’ version of a verb.

I had not foreseen this. A couple of years ago, when I decided to move to Spain, I thought that by now, it would just be a matter of accumulating more vocab and fine-tuning my diction. The biggest challenge, I thought, would be hitting the right prepositions, which, speaking from my previous experience with English, takes several years.

I know there’s no point complaining about how hard it is to learn a new language, especially when your standards are high. They are not going to change it for me.

If you’ve been dipping into this blog for a while, you will know that I made a start on Portuguese recently. My heart sinks every time I contemplate the verb nightmare stretching out in front of me.

But after this, I’m done, you hear me – DONE. I’ll never touch another language with flippin’ mutating verbs ever again. Japanese it is for me. It may take me a hundred years to get to grips with their impenetrable three-script writing system, but at least Japanese verbs don’t transmogrify all over the place.

Coming up (eventually): A rant about prepositions. Brace yourselves.

My Last Portuguese Class – A Debrief

Today I had my last Portuguese class. There were only two of us left, which meant that my first excursion into the territory of one the most melodious of Latin-based languages folded due to lack of numbers.

I already fessed up in a previous post that language classes are not exactly my forte. And this time, I had the (for me) novel experience of being taught almost exclusively in the target language from the very beginning, rather than via another language I’ve got at least a reasonable command of.

I can’t say I liked it. Not being able to understand the teacher’s explanations is surely the most frustrating experience on Earth, right after trying to suck water from a bowl of wet sand. I would have gotten way more out of this experience, had the teacher switched more readily to Spanish to drive home the salient points. Instead, she was bent on reiterating the same unintelligible monologues over and over again. She may as well have been harping on at me in Tagalog. Not what I call a satisfying classroom experience.

I realise that a lot of people learn English that way, because TEFL teachers, by and large, rarely speak the languages of the countries where they do their teaching. I’ve often wondered how this works exactly, especially with students who are starting from base camp. Do they all just point at each other and make animal noises? And why isn’t the TEFL teacher murder rate on a par with that of nurses in psychiatric hospitals…? So many questions…

I’ve had Spanish classes in 98% Spanish before, but I was already at intermediate level, so it wasn’t such a struggle. I don’t think that monolingual language classes are an ill-fated concept full-stop, but for total rookie, it’s pants. How do other language learners feel about this? Or, for that matter, TEFL teachers? If any of you with experience at either end of the beast would care put forward an opinion, I’d sure love to hear it.

Despite wanting to bang my head repeatedly against the razor-wired end of the Wailing Wall, it was still worth it. I knew no Portuguese at all when I turned up for my first class at the beginning of March, and now I know *something*. That’s the nice thing about starting from zero, I suppose, you can only stand to gain.

This is by no means the end of Project Portuguese. I’m going to continue studying on my own accord, there’s plenty of material on the interwebs. Any suggestions about good learning materials are very welcome, please drop me a comment.

We've all survived the experience... that calls for a round of cakes!

We’ve all survived the experience… that calls for a round of cakes!