domingo, 17 de julio de 2011

Field Trip Pictures: Toledo

A picture is worth a thousand words. So this is the equivalent of several thousand words. If I were writing for money, I would be flush with cash again (even in euros).

A view of the city. On the right is a fortress (the Alcazar) on the top of the hill.
On the left is the cathedral. We had the opportunity to visit both.
The view from the top of the fortress is impressive.

The Tagus River.
Though I don't know who I'm supposed to tag in this photo, exactly.

That cloth thing up there is supposed to keep out the sun.
It reminds me of something from like, Aladdin, or something.

Some streets were narrower. It was always
entertaining whenever a car tried to pass us pedestrians.

I was, of course, going to take a picture of this. I was window-shopping.

I salute you too, Sir.

Like just about everything in Spain, Toledo used to be Arab territory.
In the bottom third of the frame above you can get a good view of the city, complete with
some of the important political figures of its Arabic heyday.

Here, El Greco paints Jesus dying on the cross in Toledo.
Historical accuracy was one of his main stumbling blocks.

Skills Developed by Spanish Majors

The other day, as it often happens, I was thinking about chess. In the past, my identity was caught up in chess. Now, as a Spanish major, I find that I identify with... being a Spanish major. This made me slightly depressed.

But why? As some of you may know, I’m a person who enjoys measureable progress. In chess, I always concrete results (wins, losses, computer evaluations, ratings, and so on) that could demonstrate whether or not I was improving in certain areas—openings, middle-games, endgames, tactics, strategy, and so forth. With Spanish, I haven’t had anything similar. I sit around and talk with Spanish-speaking folks all day. How do I know I’m improving at it?

Then it occurred to me to do the same thing with Spanish that chess players have always done with chess: break it up into different aspects and analyze them. When I was finished, I was surprised by just how much someone studying Spanish as a major is expected to learn to do in only four years. In fact, I’m told regularly by science majors that my major isn’t challenging—something I used to agree with, but now I think isn’t such a sure bet. I do believe there is some grade inflation in the major (it’s too easy to get A’s) due to the fact that the tests aren’t hard enough, so it may be easier to “coast by” in Spanish than in the hard sciences. But in terms of what a Spanish major actually should learn (and the best students do, I promise), I doubt that a Spanish major requires less effort.

Without further ado, here are the major skill groups developed by Spanish majors.

1. Vocabulary

Spanish majors need to build a well-developed vocabulary. The Royal Dictionary has 283,000 words, but a decent dictionary might have just between 30,000-50,000. At a very minimum, Spanish majors need to be able to use (fluently) and understand 3,000 words for everyday interactions. According to a study by Dr. Mark Davies, a vocabulary of 3,000 words would account for about 94% of words used in oral communication. (Similar studies have turned up similar numbers for German and English.)

So is 3,000 words enough for a Spanish major? Absolutely not. Anyone who got a 5 on his or her AP Spanish in high school probably knows at least this quantity, and for really knowing Spanish, it’s insufficient. Here’s why. A native Spanish speaker will undoubtedly talk at about 150 words per minute during a speech or lecture. If you could only recognize 3,000 words, you would be stuck wondering what nine different words meant every minute when listening to someone. If you were listening to a policy debate (important for understanding politics), the speaking rate could be 300 words per minute. That means asking what 18 words means every minute. If you watched something an hour long, you’d be stuck guessing as to what over a thousand of the words meant. Even if you could get half with context clues, you’re still missing huge chunks of information.

According to the look-up-a-random-word-in-the-dictionary method,* my current active vocabulary in Spanish is some 10,260 words (active + passive = 17,820). That’s up from 6,220 (active + passive = 14,300) from January of 2010. If these numbers are right, then over the past year and a half, I have added an average of over seven words to my active vocabulary every day. I found this rather shocking. Majoring in Spanish must be a lot of work.

* This method goes like this: look up around 100 random words in the dictionary and see if you know them. Then take the percentage of words you knew and multiply that by the total number of words in the dictionary.

For fun: some of the words I didn’t know on my most recent dictionary test have the following English translations: plater, shrubby, aerialist, milliammeter (no, not millimeter), antipyretic, veneer, disquisition, aphonic, peignoir, chive, and Lapp. There were, of course, some words that were far less exotic—like harangue, despondency, sling, tantrum, blood cell, lampshade, and so forth.

Of course, there are other vocabulary skills besides just knowing lots of words. Spanish majors are expected to:

- Be able to give accurate translations of words
- Understand dictionary definitions of Spanish words given only in Spanish
- Define Spanish words using only Spanish
- Know which words are used in each country
- Understand (and sometimes use) dozens of colloquial expressions

Of these, colloquial expressions (“To every pig comes its Saturday,” “To put him an egg,” and so on) can prove troubling, given that each country has its own set of them. Understanding dictionary definitions is also difficult. The definition for “tulipa,” translated to English, is: “Noun, singular, feminine. Screen of some lanterns that resembles the shape of a tulip.” Based solely on this definition, I am supposed to figure out that a “tulipa” is a lampshade. Regional variations are tricky, too. Native Spanish speakers often don’t know that the words they use for everyday objects are limited only to their country or region. To give you an idea, imagine that you had to learn both American and British English in school. You’d know that:

aerial = antenna
barrister = lawyer
braces = suspenders
flyover = overpass
lorry = truck
optician = optometrist
nappy = diaper
rise (for salaries) = raise
spanner = wrench
zebra crossing = crosswalk
torch = flashlight

...and so on. Now multiply the number of variants by twenty, once for each Spanish-speaking country. This complicates things a good deal. But in the end, it has the advantage of making someone with a Spanish major potentially more marketable than someone who is bilingual (that is, grew up speaking Spanish at home) but hasn’t made a serious effort to learn how his or her native language is spoken in the other 19 countries where Spanish is the official language.

2. Cultural Knowledge

Vocabulary and cultural knowledge go hand-in-hand. A Spanish major should know how to interact with any individual who speaks Spanish as his or her first language—which means knowing the basic social protocols of dozens of regions. Then, to specialize in at least a few of these cultures, study abroad trips are essential. Cultural skills include:

- Knowing the history of Spain, Central America, and South America
- Knowing the basics of political life in the major countries (presidents, political parties, autonomous regions, and each country’s relationship with the others)
- Understanding cultural differences among all the countries, such as personal space and eye contact, table manners, whether or not to bring gifts, forms of address, and so on
- Being acquainted with the various indigenous and minority groups in each region and the languages they speak
- Accurately interpreting political cartoons, jokes, comedy shows, etc., specialized to particular situations in each country
- Knowing the hand gestures used in each region (everything from how to signal the bartender to how to give someone the finger)

3. Geographic Knowledge

When someone tells you he’s from the banks of the Tajo River, you’re supposed to know where that is. The best Spanish majors:

- Can locate each of the countries that speak Spanish on a map (or draw you a rough map from memory) and point to their capitals
- Know where dozens of major cities, rivers, mountain ranges, and so on are located
- Can explain the importance of each geographic feature to the people who are affected by it, including ocean currents

4. Reading Comprehension

Students often have enough trouble with this in English. Spanish majors are expected by others to:

- Be able to comprehend complex documents written in Spanish regarding everything from economics to biology to law
- Keep informed by following written media in Spanish (newspapers, magazines, blogs, and so on)
- Be familiar with a wide array of time periods in literature and poetry, from the sixteenth century to the present day
- Derive meanings of unknown words using root and stem words from Latin, Greek, Arabic, French, and English
- Know how to summarize what they’ve read

5. Listening Comprehension

When there’s something to hear in Spanish, the Spanish major is expected to be able to understand it and relate it to everyone else—even when the audio quality is poor. This means being a careful listener and being able to interpret those awful announcements in Spanish over the loudspeaker in the airport. It also means:

- Understanding at least a dozen different dialects and accents and their urban and rural variations
- Comprehending native speakers even when they talk about specialized subjects or use excessive slang
- Understanding the accents (and errors) of Chinese, Korean, German, English, and other speakers who speak Spanish as a second language
- Being able to remember and relate the details of conversations to others
- Interpreting and explaining snippets of audio (such as TV shows) even when there is little context to go on
- Recognize song lyrics

6. Oral Expression

Many of us fear public speaking. Spanish majors need to be able to do it in a foreign language. This means:

- Being able to emulate multiple accents in order to speak to different people and audiences
- Mastering all types of public speaking in Spanish, from impromptu talks (2-3 minutes) to formal presentations (several minutes in length)
- Keeping a clear head when speaking and knowing how to answer questions, make comments, and articulate
- Having some skills with live interpretation (simultaneous and paraphrasing)
- Knowing how to read a text aloud with proper speed, intonation, and enunciation
- Being familiar with the biological aspects of sound production (particularly the anatomy of the mouth) and knowing how to describe in a detailed manner how certain sounds are made

7. Translation

Translating documents is a skill that Spanish majors are expected to develop, but it’s certainly not an easy one. To translate a document, you have to be good at writing in both languages. You also have to have general knowledge of the specialty area of the document you are translating. The best way to practice translation is to volunteer—together with a friend, I translated a rather lengthy legal handbook for The Children’s Law Center, Inc., in Kentucky. The document was filled with legal jargon and took an hour per page to translate. Even after getting a major in Spanish, learning to translate well requires heaps of practice.

8. Conversational Abilities

The ability to hold a conversation in Spanish is the most fundamental skill held by any Spanish major. Some of these abilities are cultural, for instance, knowing which registers and forms of address to use (formal, professional, familiar, and so on), and knowing where to stand and what to do with your hands and so on. But other skills belong almost exclusively to the conversational realm:

- Knowing how to make small talk
- Telling jokes
- Having good interview skills (both giving and granting interviews)
- Storytelling and relating recent occurrences
- Knowing how to act as an intermediary between an English speaker and a Spanish speaker
- Being an agreeable person and getting along well with others
- Have the capacity to continue talking in Spanish without tiring, even when conversations or discussions drag on
- Being familiar enough with young-people-speak to carry on a Spanish conversation over an instant messaging service

9. Everyday Knowledge Items

Spanish majors have to be able to think and live in Spanish. This means understanding road signs, navigating webpages (and installing and downloading things, and working computer programs), knowing restaurant menus, and so forth. There are an infinite number of little things that a good Spanish major winds up knowing how to do.

10. Grammatical Knowledge

Last but certainly not least comes grammatical knowledge. A few years ago, I thought Spanish grammar was easy. Now, I think it is much harder than English grammar. There are always new things to learn: new conjugations, new uses of verb tenses, new uses of the subjunctive, new exceptions to grammar rules, new subtleties between ser and estar and por and para (yes, even though I can get these ones right 95% of the time, I have not finished learning these). And the thing is, grammar rules change depending on region. When I learn a new grammar rule for a new region, I’ll relate it to my professors back home. Often, they didn’t know that people in such-and-such country talk that way. Knowing Spanish grammar means:

- Understanding the basic rules of grammar and how they differ in each region of the Spanish-speaking world
- Knowing hundreds of verb conjugations and understanding the complex relationships among all of the tenses
- Knowing which prepositions go with each verb for each definition of that verb
- Being able to diagram sentences, evaluate word choices, knowing parts of speech, and so forth
- Understanding the subtleties of the subjunctive—not the ones you learn in Spanish 454, the highest grammar class, but the ones that you learn AFTER that
- Developing a keen intuition for grammar and being able to accurately guess grammar rules in new linguistic circumstances

That’s a lot to learn in four years. It’s no wonder that most Spanish majors who want to teach go on to get an MA—four years doesn’t seem like enough time!

After this mental exercise, I got up from my ponderings of the universe and felt a lot better. Once I establish ways to measure progress in each of these categories, I'll be able to plot my growth as a Spanish speaker. And plotting growth is something which I very much like to do. For some (like vocabulary), it's easy. As for writing, I ought to be able to compare what I've written for classes to see the improvement. For others, though, we'll have to see. I used to measure my grammar progress by taking the placement test for Spanish majors, but I gave up on that last year when I started acing it every time--perhaps there will be some new grammar test out there for me.

In any case, I thought of all these things while in Spain, so I put them in my blog.

domingo, 19 de junio de 2011

A Trip to the Art Museum

Earlier this week, Dr. Bryant sent us kiddos on a scavenger hunt on the second floor of the famous Reina Sofia Art Museum, which is known for its large glass elevators. We found the following pieces. I have included my insights below.

José Gutiérrez Solana – La tertulia del café de Pombo (1920)

These are some people looking fancy in an old wine bar. They’re having a tertulia, which is a regularly-scheduled chat-gathering of usually rather like-minded people—somewhat like an English salon. This particular tertulia was dubbed “The Sacred Crypt of Pombo” and was started by the avant-garde writer Ramón Gómez de la Serna, the man standing in the painting. This Ramón fellow asked his friend José—who was also a member of the Sacred Crypt tertulia—to create this work in 1920. Thus, I’d take it that this painting shows the group as they’d like to be remembered: in suits. Everyone in the painting went on to be famous.

Hermengildo Anglada-Camarasa Portrait of Sonia de Klamery (1913)

At first, I was excited because I thought the lady in the painting was a mermaid, just like the one in my favorite Disney movie. When I saw she had legs (they’re barely visiblelook for them in the bottom left-hand corner), I was disappointed. However, it’s clear that even if this lady isn’t a mermaid, she’s at least some type of exotic wildlife: she’s suspended out on a branch over the water in a dress whose colorful shapes (flowers, birds, and so on) outshine that of the peacock. She’s also ghostly white, so I assume she’s in the moonlight. To conclude, this is definitely one foxy lady, and a person of mysterious and sensual allure at that.

Joan Miró – Painting (Man with Pipe) (1925)

What a goofy old man! The little line coming out of the big, fat square (which I take to be his nose) is what I believe to be the pipe. The old man getting old and has lopsided eyes, and his brain will soon melt and he will turn into a zombie, as indicated by his outstretched hands. He reminds me of Statler and Waldorf:

Though I don't think his jokes would be as funny.

Alberto Sánchez – Maternity (1930-1932)

A sculpture of a mother with a child. You can’t see it so well in this photograph, but the faces are indicated (in an abstract manner) on the other side, almost as if the little guys were wearing hoods. You can also see that the baby is looking at its own shadow as cast on the mother’s side. All along the sculpture little arrows are moving out toward little circles, which I take to be suggestive of the biological processes that resulted in the child.

(Noel, if you are looking over your sister's shoulder and reading this, this means you.)

Salvador Dalí – The Great Masturbator (1929)

When we studied Salvador Dalí in school, we all were presented with these paintings:

Or maybe, if we were lucky, this one:

The Persistence of Memory

But Dalí also came up with a lot of crazy stuff that just doesn’t make it past the school censorship board these days. Apparently, Dalí had [insert type of Freudian complex here], as shown in the painting below, “The Great Masturbator”:

The picture depicts a woman about to perform fellatio on a man with bleeding knees while being fondled by a grasshopper/locust, who is, in turn, being devoured by ants. The egg (a traditional symbol of female fertility) found near the bottom looks like it came from one of the insects. The woman looks a bit like a bull, too, I think, which is a symbol of male fertility (especially in Spain). So there are some fascinating role-reversals going on here. After seeing this painting, I have no clue as to what Savlador Dalí thought about sex.


Joan Miró – Portrait II (1938)

I believe this to be the wife of the man in the first portrait by Miro, the one with the goofy old guy with the pipe. She’s wearing lots of bright colors in an attempt to stay young-looking, but her broken nose, her crossed eyes, and her puckering over-lipsticked lips are getting in the way. The egg, seen at about shoulder level, is once again a symbol of fertility. The old lady is inspecting it, aware of the long shadow that it is casting on her face (see the brown on the left-hand side).

Pablo Gargallo – Great Prophet

I take this to be a sculpture of the fictional offspring of John the Baptist and Wolverine. The staff in the Prophet’s left hand is a symbol of power, and the gaping holes represent his muscles, which are so powerful that they’re made out of force-fields rather than metal. Even though the sculpture is made of bronze, Gargallo painted it black to show how woolly this son of John the Baptist and Wolverine (the two most hairy people on the planet) was. The posture is threatening, allowing this soon-to-be-rather-elderly prophet to command respect one last time before everyone figures out he’s gone completely bonkers.

Pablo Picasso – Woman with a Vase

This woman with a flower vase is gazing on at the war scene in Picasso’s Guernica, described below. She is a squat and shell-shocked woman made from bronze, and she, just like those in the Guernica painting, appears to be missing some limbs or to have been melted by the firebombing.

Pedrero – El generalismo (1937)

The museum featured some amazing propaganda (both real and sarcastic) from the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). In this image, Francisco Franco (the big fat man with the red hat, who won the war with the help of the Nazis and was then dictator of Spain from 1939-1975) is following the German war machine, with Mussolini (I believe he’s the third one back) in toe. I’m not sure who the guy in the middle is. Maybe it's Churchill. That would be a hoot.

Pablo Picasso – Guernica (1939)

By 1937, Franco’s forces—the Nationalists—had taken in the upper hand in the Spanish Civil War. The Nationalists realized that with their firebombing technology, they had what it would take to destroy an entire city. However, they hadn’t ever done it yet. In an awful precursor to the firebombing of Dresden, Germany by the Allies in World War II, the Nationalists decided to bomb the civilian market town of Guernica. According to one estimate, about 1,650 people (almost all civilians) died in the attack.

Picasso’s painting is meant to show the confusion of the victims as their buildings collapsed around them. On the left, just under the bull, a mother is screaming as her child dies before her eyes. Just to the right of that, a man grasping a broken knife is trampled by a horse. The outline of a small flower is found just above the knife. You can’t see it well in this picture, but the horse’s teeth are melting. Other objects you might want to spot are a chicken, a woman with pacifiers for nipples, and a woman being devoured by a machine with teeth. The painting is huge, and I spent about twenty minutes walking back and forth trying to piece it all together. I’ve spent a total of about an hour looking at it by now, and I still have a hard time following all the action. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have been in the firebombing, trying to take in this much information at once. Chances are, no person saw or understood more than a snippet of what was going on at any one time. The lady at right holding the lantern, who might be an angel, may be able to grasp everything, but I certainly can’t.

Alfonso Ponce de León – Self Portrait (1936)

At first, I thought this was a portrait of the real Ponce de León, who was a Spanish explorer who went to Florida in search for the Fountain of Youth (just as many retired U.S. citizens do to this very day). I subsequently learned that Alfonso was actually a fascist who was tortured and killed just at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. So, it is interesting that he seemed to predict his own death so well. In any case, this “self portrait” is actually a portrait of Spain at the time, which could be described as a “car crash.” The sign, which says (loosely translated) “no trespassing,” looks like a cross and represents the Catholic Church. Instead of being covered in vines, this cross is covered in barbed wire. This indicates that the Church was, for Alfonso, an instrument of war (or at least very prickly).

Juan Gris – Guitar in Front of the Sea (1925)

Now for some cubism. The white triangle represents some distant (political, social) goal, an “island” out there somewhere to be discovered. The newspaper on the table represents where we are today. Between the two items is the guitar. Thus, between here and there is music. Music will show us the way.

Salvador Dalí – “Self Portrait” (1923) and “Girl at the Window” (1925)

At left is some more cubism for you. The two self-portrait of Dalí shows how obscure he’s become, almost as if he’s just a figure—he doesn’t know himself anymore. You can almost make out the letters on the scrap of newspaper, but I can’t really do it.

At right, a shapely young girl looks out a window. Dr. Bryant asked us to look for similarities between the two, and the only thing I can think of is the color scheme (lots of blues and grays) and the use of a lot of rectangles (in the windows in the second one, and in the cubism cubes in the first one). Other than that, it’s hard to believe that these two pictures were painted by the same painter.

Salvador Dalí – Invisible Man

Finally, a painting that bedazzled everyone in our group who walked past it: another one of Dalí’s surrealist paintings. The great thing about this painting is that you think you see a man in it, but there really isn’t one. The blue eyeballs of the man are just mere repetitions of a pattern started on the left. His hair is actually the clouds. His side, as seen at left, is actually a classical statue. His legs (the blue waterfalls) and his knees (the weird tree-like thing) aren’t body parts at all. His foot is a tiger. Cool!

By the time we got out, we were all completely starving.

viernes, 17 de junio de 2011

What I Learned in School Today

All of us University of Cincinnati students in Madrid—there are some 40 of us that have been magically shifted here, thus transplanting a little piece of college-aged United States of America to Spain—attend Spanish classes at a language school called don Quijote (which, not surprisingly, is a branch of some bigger institution called Cervantes). My classes run from 9:00 to 15:00 each day, with a half hour break for lunch shoved in for good measure. There are three classes in all: two in the morning and one in the afternoon, with the first two focusing on conversation and grammar and the last on modern Spanish culture and history. For the grammar classes, I tested into the fifth-highest level out of a possible six (or “C1” on a scale that goes A1, A2, B2, B3, C1, C2) along with two other UC students. Our other three classmates include a Moroccan student who, at 35, has just finished her Master’s degree at a Spanish university, and two young ladies from Brazil and China, respectively.

What do we do in these classes? I’m not quite certain of that yet. It’s kind of like the beard thing: I have a vague idea of what might be going on, but I can’t be sure. A good portion of the time is spent chatting, and yesterday and today one of the morning classes was mainly dedicated to donjuanismo (the quality found in men of “conquering” as many women as possible and crossing them off their list, so to speak) and the love lives of the various students. As the lone male in the group, I’ve found the discussion insightful. I gave up defending the concept of Don Juan (that guy who seduces whichever woman he pleases, loves her and leaves her) when faced with stiff resistance: according to my classmates, Don Juanes are cabroncitos, hijos de puta, and so on. So I mainly took a back seat and listened to the ladies. I guess you could say I’ve picked up a few tips. Their various complaints about “men these days,” included that they are afraid of commitment (didn’t see that one coming) and aren’t clear about what they want (or that one, either). Womanly charms of ages past are failing, according to my classmates, and it is becoming harder and harder for women to hold on to their men, who often fall for (here it comes!) other women.

I’ve found the grammar portion to be slightly more interesting.

For instance, it turns out that you can insert a preposition before a relative pronoun when the antecedent of the relative clause is also introduced by a preposition. So it’s acceptable to say either:

En un lugar de la Mancha cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme...
(In a place in Mancha, whose name I don’t want to remember...)


En un lugar de la Mancha de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme...
(In a place in Mancha, of whose name I don’t want to remember...)

Using this little grammatical gem will help me sound learned and wise.

Another snippet I’ve learned is that when the antecedent of an adverbial relative clause is a proper noun, it is impermissible to use en el que (“in that which”) or en que (“in which”) as the relative adverb phrase. Only donde (“where”) and en donde (“in where”) are acceptable. This means that:

Yo nací en Bilbao, en el que está el museo Guggenheim.
(I was born in Bilbao, in that which there is the Guggenheim Museum.)


Yo nací en Bilbao, en que está el museo Guggenheim.
(I was born in Bilbao, in which there is the Guggenheim Museum.)

are incorrect, whilst

Yo nací en Bilbao, donde está el museo Guggenheim.
(I was born in Bilbao, where there is the Guggenheim Museum.)

is perfectly acceptable.

Once I figured out what on earth antecedents, relative clauses, adverbial relative clauses, and the like were, I found the grammar portions to be enlightening.

I’ve also enjoyed learning some of the beautiful phrases to be found here in Spain. Here are a few of the most useful ones:

Tiene lágrimas de cocodrillo (She has the tears of a crocodile)
= that she’s pretending to cry to gain sympathy

Es más pesado que una vaca en brazos (He’s heavier tan a cow in one’s arms)
= that someone is boring

Vas para atrás, como los cangrejos (You’re moving backwards like a crab)
= that you’re making no progress

Ella es un loro (She’s a parrot)
= that she’s ugly

Es una mosca cojonera (He’s a fly with balls [testicles])
= that he’s annoying

Me parece una foca (He looks to me like a seal)
= that he’s obese

There has also been plenty of vocabulary. To me, this is the most important part of the Spanish learning I hope to get done on this trip. According to some (possibly fabricated) sources I found online, it takes around 3,000 words to tackle everyday life in Spanish, and the last time I did a randomized dictionary test (about a year ago, right before heading to Chile) I estimated that I knew about 8,000. An educated person should know at least twice as many, if not over 20,000. Some additions to my growing linguistic coverage include:

matorral – coppice (thicket)
pantano – morass
cepo – mantrap
envergadura – wingspan
atropellar – to run over (e.g., with a car)
subpelaje – an animal’s undercoat (e.g., under its fur)
vaivén – hustle and bustle
encomendar – to entrust
hurgar – to rummage
hocico – snout
escarbar – to dig
agujero – a perforation
destronar – to dethrone
teleférico – ski lift (we said “canchas de esquí” in Chile)
trineo – sleigh
emborronar – to blot
cuartilla – another word for notebook (cuaderno was the word I’d used previously)
encorsetada – to put someone or something in a corset
envés – underside, downside
desatar – to unbind (opposite of atar)
hieder – to stink (previously, I’d used huele)
piara – a herd of pigs
fumigar – fumigate
yermos – uncultivated lands
soterrado – underground
encandilar – to love something, be fascinated by something
fronda – frond
afición – hobby. In Latin America, we always just said “hobby.”
chavales – laddies
fechoría – villainy
encorajinar – to be angry with someone (there’s a few dozen words for this, it seems...)
gatillo – trigger (of a gun)
codorniz – quail
tórtola – turtledove
torpe – butterfingers, duffer, fathead, or slowcoach
manojo – handful
tímpanos – eardrums
tañidos – peals (of a bell)
barrunta – hint
despejado – cloudless
amaga – to be on the brink of something, to fake, to almost happen
rastrero – creeping
reptar – to creep, to slither
travesura – devilry
quepar – fit (I always used caber or funcionar, depending on the circumstances)
carpetovetónico – adjective used to describe something that is typical of Spanish culture
renuencia – aversion
baza – a trick (in cards)
remilgo – squeamishness
engorro – nuisance
hipoteca – mortgage
sopesar – to weigh options, to balance
halagador – flattering (that is, the quality of being a suck-up)

A few of the words (such as escarbar, hocico, envergadura, pantano, and so on) are ones I’d learned before and simply forgotten, but the majority of them are new.

On a duller note, I’ve found the classes frustrating because I speak my worst-ever Spanish in the classroom setting. It happened during my semester in Chile, too. In everyday conversation, I can chat for long stretches of time with a high degree of fluency. When out in the community, I can interpret English to Spanish and vice versa with little error, too. But in a classroom setting, one generally listens more than speaks (yes, that’s true even for me). This creates a mind-mouth disconnect that makes talking difficult. Constantly needing to start and stop the mechanism that permits me to talk is tiring and results in poor speech.

For me, this is not at all unique to Spanish classes. It’s the same in English. During my graduate seminar in philosophy last quarter, I would generally listen 20-30 minutes before raising my hand and saying a single sentence or two. What little I said would come out extraordinarily botched, and my professor would generally need to ask for clarification. For foreign language classes, this problem is amplified.

The solution, of course, will be to talk constantly so as never to fall out of the habit, even for five minutes. This is exactly what I plan on doing.

jueves, 16 de junio de 2011

[Combing Some] Snakes on a Plane*

In this blog, I will cover six months of my adventures in Europe, beginning with the 2011 Romance Languages Program in Madrid, Spain. After six weeks in Madrid, I will head to Grenoble, France, to study French for a month before leaving for a semester at l’Universite Catholique de Louvain in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium.

I will probably also be promoting other things I do, like my chess book series. For instance, at left, you will see what appears to be a picture of me in Spain that serves only as a blatant promotion for my new book, Wojo's Weapons: Winning with White, Volume II by Mongoose Press. That's exactly what it is. I'm trying to look super serious, just like I do on the back cover. (Youre always supposed to try to look like youre too cool to care that youre on the cover of something, Im told.)

I have arrived safely in Madrid, Spain, and have now gone for 120 without shaving. Yes, that’s right, I’m growing a beard. Why? I’m not sure. I think someone back home in the United States put me up to it. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s what it is. I just can’t remember who.

If this sounds slightly absurd, consider this: I have a habit of using multi-day, overseas plane flights (and the accompanying lack of sleep that goes hand-in-hand with them) to forget vast swathes of my life back in the States. A typical journey works something like this. As I pass through security, I set aside any lingering sentimentality I may harbor toward my daily routine at University of Cincinnati. I tell myself that I won’t be homesick. By the end of the first leg—in this case, Cincinnati to Chicago—I have left my most pressing concerns behind. If there is something I need to do once I get settled in to my final destination, I make a note of it; chances are, however, only a few items will merit this. That link to such-and-such website that I was supposed to send to so-and-so to help her with this-or-that? Or that paper I was supposed to proofread for a half-acquaintance? Chances are, I will have forgotten these things before I even leave the country. If you happen to be one of the victims of this purging of social responsibility, I apologize. You have six months to forgive me before you see me again.

The overseas flight, whose principle characteristic consists of twelve-some hours of sedentary purgatory (in this case, from Chicago to Warsaw), marks the beginning of the most difficult mental purge I carry out: the emotional one. During the six months I passed in the States, I accumulated at least two 50-pound suitcases of emotional baggage. Since those pounds are reserved for clothes, toiletries, six months’ worth of medications, and my mobile chess library (yes, I’m writing the third volume of my Wojo series while in Europe), I must be sure to leave everything else behind. As I sit there on the plane, unable to sleep, I consciously shelve my emotional attachments to as many people and places back home as possible. These feelings, whether they be positive or negative, will serve little purpose during the time that I’m away. And when I come back, I will be able to start afresh with my friends and family. If this sounds harsh, perhaps it is. But for me, it’s an imperative. Without it, I’d go insane. By the third leg (Warsaw to Madrid), I have reached the one day point with no sleep, and am quietly slipping into Zombieland. When I arrive, I live out my first day in the city just as if I had gone to sleep the previous night and woken up that morning. That is, I don’t sleep again until it’s actually bedtime. The spring goes back in my step as I leave the airport and begin building new social connections—connections with my new host family, new teachers, and new friends. The lack of sleep prevents me from remembering many details of the plane flight, and those things I do remember seem hazy, even surreal. This leaves a hole in my memory separating my life in the States and my life here. My mental purge is complete. I am ready to learn the new worldviews, the new value systems, and the new customs, traditions, and languages that will form the very fabric of my reality during my time in Europe. I am prepared to be re-socialized in third different cultures before leaving Narnia and returning to my homeland, where only six months will have passed.

And someone there will laugh when he or she sees my beard. It's is coming in fairly well,** so I hope I put some money on it. Maybe someone made me a bet and will be kind enough to confess to it when I get back.

* To “comb the snake” (peinar la culebra) is a Central American phrase meaning to pass time whilst doing absolutely nothing. Snakes don’t have hair; hence, combing them is thought to be pointless.

** I'm lying, actually.