Friday, March 28, 2008

Learning Spanish

I've been following Brenda and Roy's adventures in learning Spanish and thought I would jump on the band wagon with my own experiences in the realm of language acquisition. When I first got to Mexico, I had no idea that I was going to end up living here, so I didn't even think about learning a whole new language. My first few weeks in Cozumel I picked up the essentials, "cerveza, una mas, otra ronda, cigaros, cenicero, el baño, vamos a la playa y la cuenta por favor". The boys in the bar were my first teachers, a word or two a day, lots of swear words to start with. Nothing funnier than the white girl from Canada saying "No manches, pinche turistas!" Little by little I was adding vocabulary, but I didn't have a clue about grammar or verbs.

When we moved from Cozumel to Cancun, I knew that I would need a whole lot more Spanish to survive. Living in Cozumel, everyone seemed to speak English. My landlord, my boss, store keepers, none of them required me to speak Spanish. Moving to Cancun meant living downtown and survival depended on my fast tracking my language skills. Hubby wasn't a whole lot of help, I think it's impossible to learn a language from a romantic partner, it just doesn't work. We didn't have a computer and my cyber cafe time was spent catching up with friends, not finding Spanish sites. I was unemployed at that time so spending wads of cash on a teacher wasn't in the cards either. So, I grabbed my dictionary and the newspaper and sat down to teach myself. Again, this was a great help to my vocabulary, not so great for grammar, dictionaries and newspapers don't conjugate. I bought myself a verb book, but it was overwhelming and focused on Castellano Spanish which isn't really useful in Mexico. (For instance, the use of "vosotros" versus "ustedes"). I would try to practice with Hubby and he would laugh at my Spain Spanish and tell me that people don't talk that way in Mexico.

In the four and a half years I have been here, I have learned a lot. I would say that most of what I have learned came from taxi drivers, I've spent a lot of time in cabs making small talk. The drivers are always a great help, happy to correct me and give me encouragement. I have not taken any formal classes, it's just not in our budget, and I am envious of my friends who have had real training in the language. I have discovered several websites to help me with those pesky grammar points. Here's a short list:

Study Spanish
Spanish Language Exercises
Spanish Phrases and Slang
The Spanish CALL Project

I've recently come across a great blog for Spanish learners as well, check out the Learning Spanish Blog.

I think I have made great progress for a self taught speaker, though "todavia me da pena", I am still embarrassed sometimes as I know that I continue to make a lot of mistakes. The best and worst thing someone can say to me is "No te preocupes, te entiendo", meaning "Don't worry, I understand you". Great, you can understand me whoohoo, but does that mean you understand me even though I speak lousy Spanish? I can absolutely communicate, heck I can sit with Hubby's family for hours on end only speaking Spanish, but I still feel like a babe in the woods. They are very kind and always comment on how well my Spanish is coming along, though they do laugh at my accent, they say I speak like a Yucataca. Speaking on the phone is still a bit of a problem, but I am getting there. It's much easier when someone is standing in front of me as I can see their facial expressions and their hand gestures, the non-verbal language cues that help so much. I do try to write in Spanish as well, but my writing is not as strong as my speaking. I can read the newspaper, visit a doctor or ER room on my own, shop for anything and negotiate, listen to the radio and share beers with non-English speakers. I make a great effort to speak Spanish to my Mexican friends, even if they speak English. I think in comparison to a lot of gringos here, I am doing very well indeed. I'm always amazed when I meet folks who have lived here a lot longer than I have that don't even try to speak Spanish and when they do I have to restrain myself from correcting them.

I think my biggest battle right now is Max! He has taken to getting very angry if he hears me speaking Spanish, I have been sent to "time out" several times this week for not speaking English. I'll gladly suffer time out if it means he is embracing the fact that we have an English relationship and that he can differentiate between the two languages, big step for him.

So, generally I am happy with learning "poco a poco" (little by little). Some days are great, I will never forget the security guard at the mall who after five minutes of conversation asked me if I was from Argentina. Some days are horrid, when I can't express myself as fully as I would like to, particularly when I am angry and really want to tell someone off, the only words that come to my head are English swear words! I still yearn for a real teacher, someone to get me over the problems with ser/estar, por/para and the ever present problem with masculine/feminine. Past tense verbs continue to plague me, reflexive pronouns still confuse me at times and the "albur" or double talk might always go right over my head. But overall, I am thrilled to have a second language and am excited about having a perfectly bilingual son, I know when he is older he will become my grammar coach and teacher and I bet I will have lots of time outs for my mistakes. (He's a tough nut that Max, a serious disciplinarian, I'd better learn fast!)


Anonymous said...

From what little I know about growing up bilingual, that is HUGE that Max already knows the difference. I've read/heard that children don't recognize the difference between their two languages until they're a couple of years older.

And I've also heard that relationships usually continue in the language that they started in. I know that I could never have a relationship in English with Homeboy. I can help him with pronunciation and vocab when he asks, but actual convos in English usually last about two minutes.

Jonna said...

I can really relate to having days when you can barely speak Spanish at all. It's so frustrating to be stuck in one of those 'no speak' days when you need to get something done in Spanish.

It sounds like you are doing really well, I'm jealous and impressed. Especially doing it in Cancun, even in the city it seems that so many people speak English and they always want to practice. Good work!

Fned said...

I don't even know where to start with this comment!! I guess I'll try to be structured:

a) I grew up in a bilingual family and it's true that my mom always spoke english and my dad spanish to me. Yet at some point I refused to speak english (terrible teenager years) because we lived in Mexico and I was born in Mexico so I considered it my only language... Thank god my mom never gave up, eventually I came to my senses and our relationship is mainly in english.

b) my mom made it a point of honor to watch all cartoon/disney movies in English. Back then there was no such thing as DVDs so we had to wait until our ANNUAL trip to the US to visit my grandparents in order to buy any and all Disney VHS we could put our hands on. I guess this is where my unhealthy obsession with Disney films comes from. I'm 28, I have no kids and I own over 50 Disney DVDs.

c) When I met my hubby I didn't speak french. So we began dating and even moved in together all based on a relationship in English. Then one day (over a year after we met) I realized I could speak (and even more importantly argue) in French and so we switched. Today I simply cannot bring myself to speak english with him anymore. It just sounds weird.... (I wonder if now we should try spanish..... :s)

I don't really have a point to all this... but your post simply stroke home.


Jennifer said...

For help with conjugating, for me the book 501 spanish verbs has helped me so so much. Hell, it has helped me with my english grammer, because it shows the different forms (14!!) of the words and how to use it.

I have a harder time writing than speaking. Alot of times I get people who have no clue that I am a gringa, until they see me. If they hear me on the phone, they think I am from CA. But when it comes to writing, I suck. I think it is because when I speak in Spanish, most of the time I dont think about what I am going to say. It just comes out. However, when I write, I can't write as fast as I think, so I end up re-reading and editing it, and it gets messed up.

You know you are there though, when you start to think and dream in Spanish, LOL.

Manolo said...

oooooo... second or third language learning... yep, it's hard... particularly as an adult. I wish I had a t-shirt or a mug or a plaque with the phrase: "I think it's impossible to learn a language from a romantic partner, it just doesn't work" a few years back. But I guess is one of those things you just learn by trial and error. Although I believe you can get help with the "practice" part of language learning. Don't mind me... wishful thinking ranting.
About the humour thing... don't you hate when people look at you as if you were an idiot when you are trying to make a joke on a language that is not your first language? As if only native speakers have sense of humour. And I have seen it as much from Spanish speakers as with English speakers.

Beth said...

Regardless of the mistakes you make, it's amazing that you're doing it! I grew up speaking English and french. There were times during my teen years where spelling in English began to be problem but I got that all sorted out. I remember leaving a note for my dad that said "Gone to play basquetteball". Yes, my family still bring that one up.

So which do you use ustedes in mexico?

Anonymous said...

Loved this post! Finally becoming fluent is one of the main reasons that I wanted to live here.

Hubby keeps bugging me to teach him Spanish, but I'm like you, I don't think I can teach him, it just wouldn't work.

Although I did offer to do two days a week where we only talk in Spanish. The only problem is that it would be like me talking to him and all he could say would be "que?" and "perdon?" and eventually, "En ingles, por favor." LOL

CancunCanuck said...

Melissa- He is very aware of having two languages, I think it's fantastic. A couple of months back I had to remind him to speak to me in English but I haven't had to say a word to him in quite some time. He actually translated for me yesterday! The little girl next door was speaking garbled little girl Spanish and I couldn't understand what she was saying. Max looked at me like I was a fool and said "She wants da bafroom in Spanish mommy." Now when I put on a DVD, he will request what language he prefers as well. Yeah, I think he's a pretty smart guy. :)

Jonna- As an English teacher, my students get enough practice with me in the classroom, outside they want to quiz me on my Spanish, lol. They think it's funny to hear Teacher speaking their language. In terms of being "out and about" in town, service is supremely improved if you even attempt to speak Spanish, there are a lot of judgments against those that only speak English so it is a definite advantage to at least try in Spanish.

fned- I love hearing your experiences growing up bilingual, gives me some idea of what I probably face in my future with Max! I know he will go through a "No hablo ingles!" so I am loving these times where he is embracing it. Very interesting that you switched languages with your hubby, first I have heard of that, most people say what you start with is what you get.

Jennifer- Being an English teacher does help, I think in terms of grammar rules. Now if only the same rules applied in both languages! I find I have moments where I think in Spanish (I don't know my phone number or address in English!), but as far as I know, no dreams yet. :)

Manolo- Sounds like you've got some demons, lol. In terms of being funny in a second language, I will always remember the first party I went to where I was able to share a funny anecdote and people actually laughed with me at the joke and not at my horrible Spanish. (I did have to clarify with Hubby that that was the case, he reassured me and said "Yes honey, you were funny.")

Beth- How great that you were bilingual growing up! Even after all my years of French in school, I found it very difficult to be fluent. Here in Mexico "ustedes" is used and never "vosotros". Sometimes I get frustrated when I've learned something from a book or online, only to find out that it is not commonly used here, people look at me like I am from Mars. As another "ferinstance", I learned "quizá" for maybe, but around here everyone uses "tal vez".

Mexpat- Yeah, I wouldn't try to teach your partner, I'm sure I've seen divorce statistics on that subject somewhere. Kind of like trying to teach a spouse to drive. If he feels comfortable having a "Spanish" hour (er, 15 minutes?) of conversation, go for it, it's great that you can help him that way but in terms of a formal teacher, point him towards some of the links I posted. Save yourself the anguish, lol!

Unknown said...

¡Hola! Had so much fun reading your post. I'm also trying to learn Spanish as my third language but I guess one advantage I have is that my mother tongue (Filipino) draws so much from the Spanish language that reading and somehow comprehending what was written is not so difficult vs. actual writing in or speaking the language. I've attended a taster course in basic holiday Spanish and later a formal 10-wk course and I've learned a lot. I'd say this gave me a proper foundation on the use of the language. The next course will focus on grammar but I don't have time for it anymore so I decided I'll just learn on my own. I'm using the book 'Teach yourself Spanish' by Juan Kattan-Ibarra and also in class we used Sueños from BBC. This gave me a lot more confidence to communicate with our Spanish-speaking members, (actually Latin American which is different from Span) oh well I just hope I don't say any cuss words in my emails :)All the best in your studies!

GP said...

hello, thanks for sharing resources very important to learn Spanish, I just wanted a good school recomendares Spanish online via Skype 1 to 1 with one hour of free lesson

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