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gatitoverde May 07, 2008 01:39 AM

Unos pensamientos en aprender los idiomas
This is an area I'm becoming something of an expert in. Though I learned the basics of Spanish through an intensive college course (5-6 hrs/day for 2 mos.), I've been self-educating ever since and now I'm to the point where only rapidly spoken, highly dialectical Spanish is lost on me. Also, my French is fairly strong through pure self-education, I can pick my way through a German novel or a simple Russian article, and I'm 7 out of 30 chapters through an online course in Mandarin Chinese. So let me mind-vomit everything I can on the matter right here and now.

First off, get into Spanish music. I don't think there is a language spoken that has more to offer musically than Spanish, and this coming from a rabid collector of music in all genres in six languages for some six or seven years now (including ranchero/norteño, zydeco, chanson, Russian chanson, bossa nova, rock en español, et. al). Argentines have been rockin' since the sixties. Mexicans can rap with the best of 'em. Spaniards are fantastic at blending flamenco and rumba with rock. And Café Tacuba (Mexico) proves that true musicians know no barriers. They blend punk, norteño, salsa, synth-pop, you name it. If you like rock, talk to me. I'm a walking catalog of rock in Spanish. I'm familiar with hundreds of groups. The idea of course is not that you're going to understand every word or even a small fraction at first. But with regular listening, you'll start picking things out. You might hear the word "historia" a lot, so you'll look that up. Story or history. Okay, that's one. Put that on a flashcard but don't exhaustively pour over it. That's a waste of time, and you'll get burned out. Just look at it once when you get up, and once when you go to bed. Repeat that for a few days and, along with the occasions when you overhear it in song--and you certainly will--very soon you'll have reviewed it seven times on separate occasions, which is the key, many experts believe, to memorization. Then you'll catch "nosotros." Okay, that's we. Then "tiempo." Time. Pretty soon it's several words together . . . "La misma historia" . . . the same story . . . "No vale la pena" . . . it's not worth it . . . Then bam! Suddenly your catching whole phrases all over the place! And don't just make flashcards of infinitives in the case of verbs. It's great to know what "poner," to put, means when you hear it, but that probably won't help you catch "puso," he put, or "puesto," the past participle--two very common forms of the same verb. Make flashcards of basic phrases like "you leave" and "without you" ("te vas" and "sin ti"). Likewise, connection words are important: "antes," before; "después," after; "entonces," then; and "porque," because. Although I'm happy to now know how to say stapler and machine gun, I don't think I've ever heard them in a song. Likewise, though my Spanish course thought it vitally important that I quickly learn how to say "plumber" and "air conditioning," I don't know if I've ever said either in a conversation, nor heard either one in a song. Yet "corazón," heart, "lágrimas," tears, "sentimientos," feelings, "miedo," fear, "ojos," eyes, "ausencia," absence, "amor," love . . . and so on, these sticky types of words make up ninety percent of popular music. If you know enough of them and a few verbs like "necesitar," need, "querer," want, "perder," lose, "amar," love, etc. you can probably understand a good chunk of any bubblegum pop song in short order. And this is a method through which you'll find yourself reviewing certain important words and grammatical constructions over and over. And without even really trying. I don't mean to knock the methods textbooks would prescribe, but they don't make a language accessible very quickly. I'd like to think my method does. It's extremely rewarding to start picking out words in the music you already very much like. At least I find it so.

Second, use the greatest educational gift Man ever bestowed upon himself. Surf the net. This site is absolutely phenomenal for one. Also, Alta Vista Babblefish is a great free translator in a multitude of languages. It might not translate everything perfectly, or even understandably, but it can help you pick through a lot if you feed it small chunks and you have a novice's idea of how a language works grammatically. iTunes has gobs of free podcasts to help you learn. There's an amazing program called Babylon that you can try free for a few weeks. Just look around. Simply by putting, in quotes, five or six words in sequence from just about any popular song, you can find a link to the lyrics of that song using Yahoo's or Google's search engine. And if you're writing in your journal (something you should get in the habit of) and you want to test a phrase to see if it works in Spanish, type it in quotes in a browser and hit enter. If you get a slew of results from a heap of sites, then you've obviously hit upon the way that a native speaker would say something. If you only get a few, then your're either using too elaborate of a phrase to test (a bad idea early on) or (check the addresses) you're unsuccessfully trying to port over from English the same phrase that some other native English speaker has ported over for his online journal. Nice try, but no cigar. I'll give you an example: take the phrase "take the opportunity." Word for word, that would translate into Spanish as "tomar la oportunidad." Put that in a browser in quotes and see what pops up. I just tried it and I got two results, one from a site largely in English and the other from a German site. Obviously that's not how you say it. Now put a spin on it. How else could you say the same thing? How about "use the opportunity," "utilizar la oportunidad." Try that. Naggghhh. Absolutely no results. So that won't work either. Spin it again. How about "use the ocassion," "utilizar la ocasión." Ding ding ding ding ding ding ding! Three hundred and fifty-four results! Obviously we're onto something. And now, not only do we know the phrase works, but we can scroll through 354 examples of its usage in context and probably find something really close to what we're trying to say. I should warn you here that the peril of this method is that you'll turn a phrase that is colloquially acceptable, acceptable in the vernacular, but not textbook Spanish. That's where your own judgement and other educational tools come into play of course. And to a certain degree, one can discern the formality of a phrase from the type of site where it's used, encyclopedia vs. porn blog, if you'll pardon.

This gets to a third point I'd like to make. Make sure you're not teaching yourself junk. A real problem I've had in Spanish is that my professors let me get comfortable using junk phrases like the one I discussed in the above paragraph. As was gone over quite recently on this site, native English speakers often overuse the passive voice in Spanish, where it is used far less often. I did that. And because my teachers didn't want to tell me not to do something for fear that I would lose heart, I developed a whole mess of similar bad habits. For years I said things in a barely intelligible and blatantly incorrect manner because I'd gotten in the habit of porting over phrases word for word from English. As I clearly demonstrated above, that doesn't cut the mustard. Memorize authentic phrases from trusted sources. Don't invent your own gobbely-gook language like I did. It's very hard to correct. Every time I want to say "I don't believe so" in Spanish, I'm still tempted to this day to say "no lo creo" which is proper Spanish, but not at all the thing I'm trying to say. But I got in the habit of saying that because nobody corrected me and it was a HARD habit to break! What one should say (and I do now) is "yo creo que no," which translates most closely as "I believe not."

Cont . . .

gatitoverde May 07, 2008 01:40 AM

Unos pensamientos en aprender los idiomas (cont.)
Fourth, listen very closely. College students learning Spanish are often guilty of several pronunciation errors. Number one, their consanants are often too close in sound to their English equivalents. Take the word "felicidad," meaning "happiness." The "d" on the end is neither like the sometimes aspirated "-d" on the end of "had," nor like the unaspirated "-d" on the end of "dad." It's much closer to the "-the" on the end of "bathe," (though that isn't completely accurate . . . but I'm shooting from the hip here, folks.) Likewise, English speakers tend to pronounce their vowels much more distinctly than do Spanish speakers. Take the words "the event." Three syllables, right?. Were the phrase Spanish however, it would be two syllables-- more or less, "thevent." Wherever two identical vowel sounds meet, they become one sound in rapidly spoken Spanish. Take the phrase "va a hablar," "he's going to talk." The way many native Spanish speakers would pronounce that would sound much closer to "vablar" than "va-a-ablar." Another example would be "me he equivocado," "I messed up/I was wrong." It sounds much closer to "mequivocado" than "me-he-equivocado." Anyway, I could go on talking about how soft the Spanish "g" is in "agua" or nearly imperceptible the Spanish "s" can be in some dialects when it falls before a consonant, but I simply mean to make the following point: if you pay attention, and don't try and port over what you know from English into another language, you'll find things a lot easier to pick up, especially when . . .

Reading, number five. Do it a lot, whether just the few phrases you know or, later on, larger texts. And do it while approximating a native speaker's accent as best as you can . . . aloud. By doing so, you'll be getting used to using your jaw, tongue, and lips to produce sounds in ways they've never had to before. One of the things French really sank in with me, and Chinese has reinforced, is that there are a million subtle variations to the posture in which one can hold their mouth and its component parts, and certain sounds are impossible to produce unless you've practiced holding your jaw, tongue, etc. in the correct position. In French, if you don't squoosh your mouth posture up, if you will, and get used to holding your mouth in a way that's very unnatural for a native English speaker, it's not only impossible to produce a true uvular "r," (something many French learners fight with) but it's also impossible to accurately emulate all the nuanced vowels in the French language. And if you're not accurately producing the sounds, your ears are going to get accustomed to hearing your own crude version of a language, and not the real thing. And that greatly diminishes the comprehension benefits of reading aloud. As far as Spanish goes, you'll find yourself becoming more intimately familiar with the slight distance between the tips of your top front teeth and the gums just behind them than has ever been necessary as an English speaker. It is there that you will produce, or partially produce, the sounds corresponding to the letters l, n, s ,t ,d, and r, letters produced over a greater surface area, and with less precision, in English.

And sixth and last. You don't have to understand everything you hear or in fact memorize. Memorizing trusted sentences that you don't grasp completely is an excellent way to push past comprehension boundaries. Once it's in your skull, then you're giving the back of your brain, the greatest problem solver on the face of the earth, a go at figuring it out. And that bad-boy ("cerebro" is masculine) works on things 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, come rain or shine or sleep or sex or whatever. Your subconsious is incredibly powerful. Likewise, with music, movies, and T.V., just because you're not catching a whole lot of phrases at the moment doesn't mean it's not worth listening. There are so many subtle processes going on in the back of your brain when you listen to a foreign language. And even after you stop trying, that gray matter keeps working at it, feeding on the vital input you've allowed it. As I've mentioned, I study several languages, and one of the most thrilling experiences for me is returning to a language after taking something of a hiatus from intensely studying it. About 3 or 4 months ago, I took ten days off from work and just worked on French. No Spanish, no English even, just French. I memorized newspaper articles and lyrics, read along silently with books on tape (Jules Verne), watched movies, etc. etc. Then, when my vacation was over, I started bouncing back and forth between German and Spanish, and put the French on the back burner again. Then, maybe a month later, while tinkering with my iTunes, I haplessly ended up playing a French song I'd never really understood very well to hear it. And oh my goodness. I was blown away with how incredibly well I could understand what was being said. Just a month before, in the middle of intense study of French, it had defied me, but there I was comprehending what Francis Cabrel was singing-- almost as well as if it were English. And that's what I'm talking about: the back of your brain is so much more powerful than you may believe. Just allow it to and it will do an immense amount of work for you.

Alright, I need to work tomorrow and I've gone on for some time, so I'm calling it quits. Chew on what I said. Take from it what you can. Dismiss what you think is rubbish. Good luck. Hasta.

sosia May 07, 2008 04:28 AM

good article. Your fingers must be tired!
saludos :D

poli May 07, 2008 05:39 AM

I agree with both of you. I especially agree with you in what you have to say about pop music. Listening to pop music may help you understand commonly used phrases and also help with pronuciation. I always advise
people who want to learn to listen to boleros which are usually clearly sung in well accented Spanish. Boleros make use of many common expressions. They will help you learn the rhythm of the language which will aid in your communication skills. Most bolero songs are from the 1950's, but contemporary artists still sing them. Edith Salazar is a contemporary composer and singer of boleros. Listen to her! She's on youtube. She has a wonderful disc available which also includes poetry.


gatitoverde May 07, 2008 07:38 AM

A few mistakes . . .
I should add that I am not a professional educator and, as they'd say in French, "I have been capable of making mistakes." For one thing, I believe the French "r" is actually classified as an uvular "r," not a guttural one. [I've since corrected the error.] Anyway, take it with a grain of salt, and good luck!

Tomisimo May 08, 2008 08:07 PM

Gatitoverde's posts were originally a response to this thread, but it's so good I've split it off and stickied it so others won't miss it :thumbsup:

gatitoverde May 09, 2008 04:46 PM

I'm honored. I've come to appreciate this site as much as a place to help out others who share my passion for learning language as for the invaluble information I can glean from its members. Thank you. And all corrections are welcome.

Me honras. Vengo a estimar este sitio tanto como un lugar para ayudar a otros que comparten un pasión común al aprender los idiomas como para la información que puedo recoger de los integrantes. Gracias. Y todas correciones son bienvenidas. :)

Jane May 09, 2008 06:07 PM


Originally Posted by gatitoverde (Post 8024)
I'm honored. I've come to appreciate this site as much as a place to help out others who share my passion for learning language as for the invaluble information I can glean from its members. Thank you. And all corrections are welcome.

Me honras. Vengo a estimar este sitio tanto como un lugar para ayudar a otros que comparten un pasión común al aprender los idiomas como para la información que puedo recoger de los integrantes. Gracias. Y todas correciones son bienvenidas. :)

We´re honoured to have you with us, Gatito. You´re now also a member, and here the learning process continues.

gatitoverde May 09, 2008 07:56 PM

Correct me if I'm wrong in correcting me but . . .
I think I should have used "por" in place of "para" above. And I was also thinking I might want to use "pueda" in place of "puedo." I overuse the subjunctive sometimes though, because I don't completely understand it, so I went against my instinct and stuck with "puedo." Help me out here folks.

Jane May 10, 2008 01:12 PM

The subjunctive is still quite a handful for me too, but I think your use of puedo sounds better.
We´ll wait and hear what the native speakers have to say.

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