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.

1 comentario:

  1. ¡Hola Juan!

    Congrats on testing into such a high level of Spanish grammar! I always knew you were good. I must say that reading about your "grammatical gems" made me wonder if this is how you would feel reading blog posts about C++. I hope some of your Spanish classmates read your blog and appreciate predicate clauses and all that. (I find it interesting inasmuch as natural language parsing remains a difficult problem in computer science... which reminds me, have you heard of Lojban? It is a human language based on predicate logic, specifically designed to test the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis" - the idea that the language one speaks influences or even restricts the way one thinks. I thought you would find that of interest, since you've just recently studied predicate logic AND you have mentioned on several occasions how certain Spanish phrases enforce a different worldview than the USA, such as the inability to "spend time" in Chile, only "pass time".)

    That is some interesting vocabulary! Sounds like you've learned a lot of words in just a few days. I like some of those phrases - I think I will use "as heavy as a cow in ones arms" to describe some classes and/or professors next quarter.