Tuesday, November 20, 2012

             (In which I share my un-asked for thoughts on English, Spanish, Galician, and learning languages in general after 2.5 months in Spain. Please forgive any awkward phrasing, self indulgent rambling, and the lack of pictures/update. )

This post is titled Sí in honor of the word I say the most these days. All day, everyday, Sí, Sí, Sí.  AFS always says to never say no, and I took it to heart. Maybe a little too much so. Basically every question the first month was answered with "yes". So I will now confirm, that's not actually the best strategy.

(my new friend in class complaining about not getting a date): "I'm going to be lonely forever"
me: "yeah"
her: "well thanks...."
(don't worry though she's still my friend somehow)
People started calling me out on it pretty quick though.

"You never say anything but yes!"
Me: "Yes..."

My family is by now good at translating my "yes" into what I really mean in most situations: "no", "maybe", "what on earth are you talking about?", "are you really talking to me?", "is that even a question?", "I have nothing to add so this is easiest", or "I have a lot to say but I don't have the skills in Spanish so I'll just stay quiet".  The problem is sometimes I say yes because I understand but I have nothing more to add to the conversation but people think it's my "I don't get it" yes. Or if I say yes because I understood the general gist of the topic but then someone asks for one specific difficult word translated to English and I have no idea so it looks like I didn't understand anything even though I really got almost all of it.
           I am picking up on so many things I missed in the first weeks. Like the fact that my Lengua teacher isn't very nice, but my Philosophy teacher is super sweet (people start getting personalities miraculously with language acquisition). Or jokes like when my host mom will tell me a pan with hole in the bottom is for cooking eggs, and I don't know any better so I'm like "Okay, I guess if you know how'". But then she just laughs because you can't cook eggs in pans with holes in them.


My decision to want to learn Spanish was a long process. I've always wanted to learn more languages, and I'd heard all my life that the only way to learn a language is to live it (I don't know why I'd heard that but it stuck with me so that I always had studying abroad in the back of my mind). I tried with a friend to study Spanish back in 3rd/4th grade (I think we got about as far as learning "queso"= cheese. To be fair, I haven't forgotten it since so it wasn't a complete failure I suppose). Next in 5th grade or so we tried some German (I remember nothing). 6th grade I loved French (and I'd still love to study more). Thanks to my Sri Lankan best friend I've also "studied" Sinhalese a little (by a little I mean I know how to say family relationships and "underwear" and "studied" means reading her mom's coffee mug with the Sinhalese alphabet). But anyways, after lots of pointless detours and dabbling in other languages for anecdotal purposes, I ended up taking Spanish in high school, and really liked it. So, (among many other reasons), I ended up here in Spain.

  OH and wait, I'm not just learning Spanish. I suppose I could have titled this "Learning Galician, Part 2". I should talk about it more because really not many people know anything about it. Even google thinks it's misspelled because it doesn't recognize the word Galician. It's a Latin romance language and it's even older than Spanish, in it's Galaico-Portuguese form. Portuguese and Galician used to be basically the same language, but a while ago (about 7 centuries ago if I'm not mistaken and I might be) they split and morphed into their own. Galician is really fairly similar to Spanish. There are a lot of cognates between the languages. So it does look pretty similar to Spanish, but they are truly different languages at the heart of it. It's pronounced a little different, a little different grammar, vocabulary, conjugations, connotations... so it's actually very different. But not too much so. I like it. As I've been told, it's more "cariñoso" (loving, affectionate, sweet).
        I really do understand a good amount of Galician. Always at the very least the general topic of what I'm hearing for sure, and often most of what happens in the conversation. I'm really really good at biological terms which is hilarious. It's because my biology class is taught in Galician, and I already know a lot from AP last year so I don't have to worry about the concepts just the vocabulary and even that isn't so much because the English terms are often Latin based like Galician is, and the fact that my Galician teacher makes me photocopies of her Galician/Spanish/English Health Dictionary. So for example the other day I was studying these words:

    "to poison oneself, to vaccinate, to hang oneself, to operate on, to be delirious, to wound oneself, to hurt, to suffer, to sweat, to sneeze, to perspire, to spit, to sount (apparently that's the word for listening to a heartbeat), to vomit, to bleed, to become infected, to fall, to be delirious, to swallow, to be drowned, to die, to fall ill, to catch a cold," and a bunch of body parts.

I feel a little paranoid afterwards. Or maybe like a doctor. I think I could never be a doctor because I would self diagnose myself with terrible diseases all the time. And blood is gross.
            Anyways the first time my mom spoke directly with me only in Galician and I understood the entire time was a very exciting moment. My Galician teacher also speaks to me in Galician. I always reply in Spanish though, at some point in the future (January?) I'll be speaking. I feel too self conscious now but that's how you have to learn.
I don't know how to describe my level of Spanish except to say that when people ask if I speak Spanish, I've progressed from saying "No", to  "A little", to  "More or less",  to "Well... basically" to "Yes", meaning the natives can proceed talking to me and I'll most likely be able to formulate a coherent answer but I'm still learning. I confuse the words for "jungle" and "forest" and it makes my sister laugh. I freeze up talking to strangers or people I haven't talked to much. (I don't order for myself at restaurants. A very proud moment was when I had a conversation with a woman at a bus stop.) A lot of the times I have to ask what people said, but because I didn't hear or wasn't listening not because I can't understand.

           To be totally honest, I think I've hit a bit of a plateau language-learning-wise. Upon arrival I was pleasantly surprised with my level of understanding and since have gotten somewhat complacent about studying the language(s) vigorously like I should be. It's too easy to forget that just because I'm used to the sound of it, I don't necessarily understand (sounds obvious but it's not), and too easy to forget that just because my parents don't speak English at all and none of my friends do with me so I'm truly immersed it's still a learning process to work at.  I haven't yet had a dream in Spanish, and I find myself stressing a little that I'm not, which I know is ridiculous and I shouldn't compare myself to any other exchangers and it'll happen on it's own time and half my brain is learning Galician anyway and everything, but I can't help it. At this point I'm having dreams in which I start talking to someone then think "WAIT SPANISH" and mumble some gibberish "hola, sí, kjgrlakdgjaslda" and then wake up. So that doesn't exactly count. But I'm just going to continue trying and resume studying as much as I can.

But I adore Spanish.

          I love how white caps on the ocean are called by the word for fluffy white lambs (lamb? plural baby sheep?) (borregos).
         I think it's interesting that the word for "wives" and "handcuffs" are one and the same (esposas).
           I like that "paloma" is a name and usually means "dove" which is beautiful but also "pigeon" which would be an unfortunate name.
          I think it's cute that even in Spain parents pretend the spoon is a plane (avion) to feed babies.
         Songs aren't censored. The first time I heard the uncut version of "Forget You" (Cee Lo Green) just casually played on the grocery store loudspeaker I was pretty surprised. Although I'm not entirely sure if this is truly due to less sensitivity to profanity or if it's because it's in English.
        I like the little random etiquette things,  like that Spanish teenagers don't use periods if you are chatting or texting.
            "Hey how are you?"
            "good, just finished the biology homework."  (except in Spanish obviously)
That seems really formal and serious to kids here. I've been asked if I'm upset
several times because I put the period out of habit but I'm not! So now I find myself accustomed to that and now when I'm talking with my US friends I've caught myself wondering if they were mad after they used a period.    
          I think it´s awesome in math the variables (x, y, etc) are called incógnitos which make them sound like secret agents.
        And a million other lovely things about this language.

      Something I've come to realize from living in a different language is that English is a difficult language to learn and to teach.  (as if there is such a thing as an easy one). Until I came here and spent time in a class for learning English, I didn't realize how many things there are in this language that are tricky. First of all pronunciation is so random, every letter can have a different sound depending on the word. So it's really hard to read and know how to say things for foreigners. I have been asked how I learned how to read and I don't have any idea.
     And there's so many phrasal verbs. That's verbs that are made of a pair of words. For example, "Look." Pretty simple verb. but just by adding any number of words to it changes the meaning completely. Look up to (admire), Look down on (feel superior to), Look over (review), look for (search for a thing), look up (search for information), look up (literally look upwards), look after (take care of), look into (investigate), look out (be careful), and probably a few more as well. As a native English speaker I don't even think about these little variations and automatically get it, but for non-native speakers it's a challenge to figure out each individual phrase and it's context.
       I've tried helping my classmates in class, but I'm really not much good. I'm terrible at explaining when to use "already" versus when to use "yet". I don't know the present perfect continuous first person conjugation of "to be" (just made that up but you get the idea), well I know it but I don't have a name for it. Rarely when speaking/listening to Spanish do I translate everything literally, there isn't time, and it's simpler to just understand the gist of things, but that's not what the English teacher wants on his tests. I'm not even that good at vocabulary because I don't know the Spanish equivalent always.

           It's also interesting to read the texts in Galician class (even though I can't really participate beyond that). A lot of time is spent learning about minority languages and why it's important to conserve them. Hundreds of languages are dying out all the time. We lose so much when we lose a language because we lose an entire way of thinking and dealing with the world. A lot of people don't understand and just ask "why can't everyone just speak English it would be so much easier!" Even the Bible teaches monolingualism with the story of the Tower of Babel, in which many languages are forced on the world as a punishment.  Yes, international communication is extremely important, but forcing one language (English) on everyone isn't the best answer. For one thing, English is not perfect. There are situations like when English speakers can't figure out the data of a science experiment but a German speaker immediately can, because it was dealing with an animal's genes and German doesn't differentiate between front legs and back legs and neither did the gene, so the English speakers didn't realize what happened. Basically my point is diversity is awesome.
           Besides, only one language for the entire world? I can't imagine anything more boring.

 (video about basically everything I just talked about  by a British woman who knows what she's talking about much more than I do).

( extremely fascinating article on how language affects our thoughts. I seriously recommend checking it out.)

          I also think about what fluency really means. At what point does a language more than knowing some words, some vocabulary, a few verb conjugations, and become the way you communicate and express your own thoughts and emotions with other humans? It's also strange to fully realize that other people think in words different from your own. Like, of course they do, they speak another language. But I didn't really full GET IT until I came here and lived it, weird as it may sound. I'm not living with people who are really really good at Spanish whose brains are conducting themselves in English underneath. It's all entirely Spanish all the way through (well, or Galician).  I'm not sure why but it's a pretty amazing realization to really get how incredible it is that in every country people really think differently. And not in a "think differently" where you think red looks prettier than blue, but that at the core the fundamental ideas are expressed using totally distinct methods and words. If I'm making any sense at all.
 But I find myself wondering, does anyone really truly speak the same language? Every language has accents and dialects in varying regions, and within each we express ourselves in our thinking just a tiny bit differently than anyone else. And really how much does anyone communicate with others? How many of your thoughts could you not possibly put into words to be understood by anyone else, isn't that really a kind of private language? I personally for example have found myself describing something in my head as "kind of blurmby" but I would never say that to anyone else.

 (Some cool not English words)

           I'm definitely forgetting English. Spelling is so hard. I've spent so long trying to remember these words I made sure to write them down: attention; decomposition; and splash.  And isn´t there a word for when in basketball you shot from farther back and it´s worth three points? Is that a triple? I don´t think so but I just can´t think of what it´s called. Is squid plural? Is it "an European" or "a European"? What are some slang terms for "police" besides "po-po"?
Anyone who comments and reminds me will be greatly appreciated. I´m serious, please tell me.

And finally, a shout-out to whoever got to my blog searching for "cool koalas". This one's for you. And for everyone who read all this way, you rock. (that's a thing to say in English, right? you rock? I don't know. But you're my favorites. Not that I have favorites. There is no prize but my love.)

"Sí" you later!


  1. Amy, you are so great, and hilarious too. and it is just "three-pointer" :) (the basketball term)

  2. 5-0, boys in blue, cop/copper, doughnut squad, (name of city)'s finest, The Man, narc, rentacop. I'm pretty sure it's "a european" and i would say "look at all dem squid" so the singular and plural are the same. enjoy your time in spain!

  3. Because initial "y" sounds (like ewe or European) are now preceded by "a" rather than "an", you'd say "A European". Many years ago it would have been "an European," but that was an affectation by a newly-created middle class trying to prove they were well-educated. (Actually, that's were many of the English grammar rules originated....and why they're commonly not followed in speech and print....)

    And a few more slang terms (Rachel got lots of them!): the fuzz, pigs (that always makes me think of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble being censored because the police were drawn as pigs!),and Bobbies--in England. (Which came from Robert Peel, I believe...but I'm not sure.)


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