14 October 2009

I'm going to learn Spanish

Every time John and I travel to Europe I whine about wanting to be fluent in a foreign language. Usually the conversation begins with me fantasizing about spending 3 months, 6 months, a year, in a foreign country where I could be immersed in the language I was hoping to learn. Part of my interest is the romantic notion of spending 3 months, 6 months or a year in another country and pretending to be a local. But perhaps even more important to me is my long standing desire to be able to converse in some language other than my own. (Which is English in case you haven’t figured it out yet.)


This desire hits me even more when I am with someone I know who can speak another language. It is one thing to hear bilingual strangers converse, but there is something about hearing a friend bust out in some foreign language that really gets the old envy/self-pity machine going. And so it was this summer in France. Added to my usual fantasy about immersing myself in a language was my best friend Ron using his French as the four of us ran around the green fields of the Loire Valley. In these situations, admiration of the friend’s skill is always closely linked feelings of gross inadequacy. Later, when John and I were in Switzerland we watched a pretty awful movie made for German language TV. What first caught our eye were beautiful scenes of sunny, southern England. It turned out to be an adaptation of a Rosamund Pilcher romance novel. Not really understanding German, what we heard was “German, German, German, Strawberry Cottage, German, German.” For an hour and a half all we understood of the dialog was the frequent use of “Strawberry Cottage”. The melodrama was obvious enough that we didn’t really need to understand the language to know what was going on. Afterwards I launched into my “if only we could live somewhere and be immersed in another language” whining. After all, even watching Strawberry Cottage movies in German would help me learn the language.

Whenever I have these fantasies about learning another language the discussion usually focuses on French or Italian. Both France and Italy are countries that we would love to live in for a time. We both have survival French already. And my college Italian can be put to pretty good use when I need it to, but I suppose even then it is just a click or two above survival level as well. And since moving to either of those countries, even for 3 months, is an impossibility until we retire in 20 or so years, the whining continues. Of course I could always study French or Italian here in DC, but at my age learning another language well really would require a bit of immersion and lots of practice.

Then, as if a light bulb went off over my head, it occurred to me. Spanish! For various reasons I had never really thought about learning Spanish. But it suddenly seemed too obvious. Immersing oneself in Spanish is quite easy here in DC. First, there are Spanish speakers everywhere in this town. It is hard to walk ten feet without hearing Spanish. Second, we have more than one Spanish language TV channel available 24/7 so I can immerse myself in the Spanish version of Strawberry Cottage anytime I feel like it. Third, whether the xenophobes like it or not, the US is quickly and unofficially becoming a bilingual country. Fourth, we even have free Spanish language weeklies available on every street corner. Fifth, Spain is pretty high up our European travel wish list and my good friend Tanya lives in Mexico City and we hope to see her there again as well as explore other parts of Mexico.

And I don’t want to just learn a bit of traveler’s Spanish. I really want to be fluent. I have no delusions of ever being translator-worthy, but the goal here is to not only to be able to function in Spanish but to actually enjoy reading it and speaking it. And to be able to converse on a wide range of topics, not just ask what about menus and train timetables.

It will be no surprise to regular readers that I like a challenge and a goal. (Remember those 40 goals I wanted to reach by the time I turned 40?) So the new goal is to be fluent—at least to my own satisfaction—by the time I am 45. That gives me five years. I already have the books to get started. Just think, I could do this and actually quit whining about not being able to speak a foreign language. Hmm…what ever will I whine about now on vacation? I am sure I will think of something.

What seemingly impossible life goal could you actually achieve by cutting out the excuses and with a little planning and determination? What languages do you speak? Which would you like to learn?

9 comments:

  1. all i am going to say is...'zylbie.'

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  2. I live in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood. When we got to the market together, my husband busts out with his quite passable Spanish, and I just nod my head as if I understand. Then, invariably, someone asks me a question in Spanish, and I am busted.

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  3. And apparently I can't write English, either. "go to the market" not "got."

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  4. My spouse studied Spanish and travelled in Central and South American counties, picking up major fluency. He's handy to have along in Latin countries. In recent years he's focussed on retaining and doing more conversationally. He has a friend from Ecuador who speaks only Spanish with him. So once you get comfortable with the language, find a person who will help and challenge you!

    My language is/was French. I no longer speak it well at all, but I can still read/translate if I have to.

    You were in Belgium and Holland? Planning a trip there myself! Look forward to hearing more about your adventures.

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  5. I took French all through high school. I thought it was more sophisticated than Spanish but what I didn't think about was how useless it would be since I live in So. California. Plus, I was never any good at speaking French. I can understand it and read it (sort of) but speak it? No. I could never get that "back of the throat" thing down.

    I wonder how those language immersion tapes work. I mean, are they effective?

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  6. Deniz: Don't think that isn't another reason for choosing Spanish.

    Lorin: I totally understand. I keep picturing how much more interesting my daily life is going to be when I begin to understand a whole new world of conversations.

    MEP: I hope you don't mind me abbreviating your moniker. What are your plans for Belgium and Holland? I will have some more pictures to post soon. If you go to Antwerp I have a museum that no book lover should miss. I am going to blog about it in the next few days.

    Ti: I think I had the same bias towards French over Spanish as well. I am not sure about the tapes I have some Berlitz ones that I am going to start with just to get the very basic outline and sound of it. But then I think a class or two will be in order.

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  7. I need to learn Spanish but I don't really want to. My top five languages that I would like to speak are French, Arabic, Chinese (I know a bit of all three of those), Italian, and Portuguese. Right now I'm trying to teach myself French with Pimsleur tapes and by watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer in French with English subtitles. I have learned how to say lots of useful things like "EVERYONE IS GOING TO DIE". :P

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  8. Just a semester of French was enough to make a big difference when I first went to Paris.

    But here in Texas, Spanish would have been the more useful language for me to have studied.

    Great goal!

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  9. buena suerte!

    I am passable (though extremely rusty) in French and so-so in Spanish - which I have plenty of opportunity to practice here, though I don't much. When I was laid up last year with injury, I thought learning Swedish would be a good way to spend my time. I took out a tape system from the library, but clearly that is not my method of learning. I'd still like to learn it, then I could visit my cousins in the old country.

    Now, as far as what I could accomplish if I would just stop whining and do something about it - there are two things that come immediately to mind - also on my 40 x 40 list, which I'm still working on ;)

    1. Quit my job and do something I care about. There's fear and indecisiveness at play here. I think I may need a life coach, which seems super spoiled in some respects to me, but there you have it.

    2. Travel. As half of a DINK team, there's really not much holding me back here. Well, getting the other half of the team to travel is a struggle. Still trying to convince him he needs a passport!!!

    There is my long-winded response to your, as always, thought-provoking post.

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