Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Balance: Learning vs. Doing

When I hear someone say they “aren’t good at languages”, I just don’t believe them.  I believe that they haven’t had the proper learning methods to help them succeed.  One of the ingredients missing from the repertoire of many language students is actually doing, rather than learning.   I am a firm believer that the earlier in the process a person tries to communicate with a native speaker of the language they’re learning, the better off they will be, even if at first they don’t understand a single thing that the native speaker says back to them!

When I started my first Spanish class, at 24 years old, I had a great encounter that I think exemplifies this concept.  I had just been in my Intro to Spanish class for a couple weeks and happened to be getting on a bus in the outskirts of Pittsburgh.  There was a Mexican couple who got on the bus in front of me, and the bus driver was trying to tell them that the fare would be an extra dollar, as the ride was beginning in zone 2, but the couple did not seem to be understanding what the driver said.   I paid for them, and proceeded to greet them.  All I had was a couple weeks in an intro Spanish class, and my textbook glossary, but we managed to talk for the full hour long bus ride.  It ended up being a great time, with both myself and the gentleman leafing through the glossary, sometimes our thoughts being cut off mid sentence due to how small of a vocabulary we both had, and the limited scope of the textbook glossary.  Did I learn anything from this experience?  linguistically?  I doubt it, but I believe it was still an important step in the development of my Spanish language abilities. It was time spent doing, not learning.  

Now, of course I still had tons of stuff to learn.  I still do!   Language has to be experienced.  Can you imagine someone learning to cook in a classroom, or behind a book.  Sure, you can expand your knowledge of food and technique, but until you get into the kitchen, you will not truly learn to cook.  Now some people will invariably argue “I want to understand what the person will say back to me before I start speaking to them in their language”.  A valid feeling, but understanding is a skill that comes with practice.  Practice actually doing it in conversation.  Understanding exercises in class or audio-programs certainly can be beneficial, but to really learn how to cook, one must enter the kitchen.  

Another concern people have is making mistakes, which can sometimes be embarrassing.  This will happen.  It is part of the process.  Embrace the mistakes, as they are learning opportunities.  When you make a mistake in conversation, if someone points it out to you or you realize it, you are more likely to remember it than if you made the mistake doing exercises from a book or in a classroom.  
My older daughter, who is 4, just started learning Mandarin (which I studied long before I started Spanish).  When we went to a Chinese restaurant recently, I encouraged her to speak Chinese with the waitress.  The waitress was very gracious and spoke back to my daughter and me in Chinese.  My daughter did not understand any of the replies to what she asked the waitress, and looked at me and said “huh”, but still had the courage to express herself in a language in which she only knew a couple basic phrases.  After our lunch, I rewarded and praised my daughter for having the courage to walk through her fear and try something new.  I told her that even though she didn’t understand, that someday she would and that she made an important first step.  I am genuinely proud of her for not allowing her self-consciousness get in her way.
The way children learn their first language is a great example for adults to follow as we venture into second language learning.  If they were afraid of talking because they might make a mistake, they would never end up speaking.  For the longest time my oldest daughter would say “you goed there”?  This follows the grammatical rules, but of course the past tense of “to go” is an exception to the rule.  Eventually she learned, through making the mistake.  As learners, this is what we must do.  We must embrace our mistakes to learn from them.  If we say “yo iré” or “yo voé” to mean “I went”, we will have made the mistake of assuming the verb “ir” followed the rule of adding an “é” to the end of the word in the first person singular to make it the preterite.  This would be a mistake, the correct form is “yo fui”, but having made the mistake this irregular will now stand out in our mind.  As James Joyce said “mistakes are the portals of discovery”.  

So if you are a beginner, or just shy about using the skills you’ve learned, just do it!  It will not make you fluent immediately, but get in the kitchen, it’s the only way you’ll really learn!  And remember, a mistake isn’t the end of the world!  It’s actually a valuable lesson that you’re now less likely to forget!

“A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing”

George Bernard Shaw

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Book notes: The Spanish Subjunctive Up Close

Like many other Spanish learners, one of my greatest weaknesses is using, or failing to use, the subjunctive.  As part of an ongoing effort to improve upon this I have read and done all of the exercises in the book The Spanish Subjunctive Up Close by Eric Vogt.  These are some notes and observations from the book.    

One thing that Mr. Vogt makes clear at the beginning of the book is that the subjunctive is not a tense, but a mood that includes 4 tenses (present, imperfect, present perfect, and pluperfect).  What determines the use of the subjunctive is the relationship between dependent and independent clauses, not the time when an action happens.  The time when the action happens in relation to the verb in the main clause determines which tense of the subjunctive should be used.    

One type of clause in which the subjunctive may be called for are subordinated noun clauses.  The author provides an easy formula for determining when the subjunctive is needed for subordinated noun clauses (the second, or dependent clause).  

S1+V1 que S2+V2  where S1S2

Subject 1 & Verb 1 + Subject 2 & Verb 2 where subject 2 is not equal to subject 1, and verb 1 is a W.E.I.R.D.O. verb.  W.E.I.R.D.O. is a handy acronym for verbs of Wishing (or wanting, willing, desiring, etc.), Emotion (alegrarse, enojarse, etc.), Indirect statements/commands (que traiga, etc.), Doubt/Denial (dudar), and Ojalá.  The importance of the change in subject with W.E.I.R.D.O. cannot be overstated, if the subject does not change the subjunctive is not used.   
Subordinated noun clauses are not the only types of clause that require the subjunctive to follow; some adjective and adverbial clauses also require the subjunctive to follow.  The subjunctive is used in adjective phrases when the antecedent, or noun of the first clause, is vague, non-existent, or indefinite.  The example provided by the book is “necesitamos una computadora que funcione”.  The “computadora que funcione” describes a computer that is vague, may or may not exist, and indefinite (just a computer that works, not the computer that works).  For adverbial clauses, there is one group of these clauses that always requires the subjunctive and another group that sometimes requires the subjunctive, depending on the certainty of the speaker about an event.  The group of clauses that always requires the subjunctive includes:  
a menos que/a no ser que  (unless)
antes de que  (before)
como si  (as if)
con tal de que, siempre y cuando  (provided that/as long as)
el hecho de que (the fact that)
en caso de que (in case that)
para que, a fin de que  (in order that)
sin que (without)
(pg. 48)

The other group sometimes requires the subjunctive.  To determine whether or not the subjunctive is required we need to look at the speaker’s attitude about the dependent clause, the adverbial phrase is describing, such as uncertainty or doubt about the clause.   
a pesar de que  (despite, in spite of)
acaso, tal vez, quizá  (perhaps)
así que, así como (such that)
aunque  (although)
cuando (when)
de modo que, de manera que  (in such a way that)
después de que, luego que (after)
hasta que  (until)
mientras  (while)
por más que, por mucho que (no matter how much)
siempre que (as long as)
tan pronto como, en cuanto  (as soon as)
una vez que  (once you have)
(pg. 49)

The exercises in the book are plentiful and extensive.  Some are as simple as matching exercises.  Other more difficult exercises involve translating sentences that may or may not involve the subjunctive.  Each chapter has 5 or 6 sets of exercises, so one can feel comfortable with the content before moving on (or review the chapter more).   The entire last chapter is comprehensive exercises on material learned in all of the chapters.  I feel I personally gained the most from the exercises, though the explanations were good as well.

The Spanish Subjunctive Up Close has been a useful tool that has helped me become more confident with the subjunctive.  I would highly recommend it as a resource for anyone interested in improving their use of the subjunctive.
¡Que lo lean!  

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Some excellent movies to enjoy while learning about Latin American culture!


También la Lluvia  -  Set in Bolivia, a Spanish film crew employs Native Americans to make a film about Christopher Columbus.  Maybe employs isn’t really accurate, exploits might be a better term.   Against the backdrop of the Bolivian government privatizing the water supply and the social unrest that follows; action, emotion, and inspiration follow.  This is a truly inspirational film, and is one of my favorites in any language.   

¡No!  -  A marketing campaign that brought down a dictator.  Awesome, true story.  You can see the real ad portrayed in the movie here

La Misma Luna  -  A heart-touching story of a young boy who crosses the US/Mexican border by himself to find his mother.  His journey shows the perils of this journey that many like him take every day.  He also finds an unlikely friend and hero.  

The Motorcycle Diaries  -  An adventure through the continent of South America.  Great cinematography of the varied landscapes of the continent.   Learn the beginnings of the infamous “Che”.    

Romero  -  This movie is in English, but is culturally and historically relevant.  In my opinion, when one mentions the great non-violent leaders of the 20th century Bishop Romero should be right up there with Martin Luther King and Gandhi.  The story of a hero who knew he would be killed for doing the right thing and went ahead and did it anyway.  Excellent movie!   

Any suggestions or favorites that I missed?  Feel free to comment!

Even the Rain (2010) Poster

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

My Spanish Goals

The previous post on this blog was about measuring progress and learning from mistakes. I mentioned that I noticed some mistakes I was making in speech while we were in Panama, and that I plan on making a study plan to address those mistakes.  This post is that plan and the specific subjects I will address to improve in those areas.  

One of the first problems I noticed was making mistakes with the subjunctive tenses.  I plan on addressing this through reading and doing the exercises in the book The Spanish Subjunctive Up Close  by Eric Vogt.  I’ve read through this book before, but could certainly use a review, and doing the exercises may help train my brain to pick the proper tenses.   I will also try to incorporate the subjunctive into my speech with my wife more, and she is definitely not shy about letting me know when I’m wrong.      

Another issue that I feel I could use some reinforcement on is choosing the proper pronoun.  Most of the time I feel confident with pronouns, but I get confused sometimes with when to use “la” or “le”.  I plan on addressing these issues by reading and doing the exercises in the book Spanish Pronouns and Prepositions by Dorothy Richmond.  I don't feel this problem was quite as extensive as my problem with the subjunctive, so I think a little review will be all it takes to clear it up.       

One final issue I’d like to address with my Spanish is to add more natural transitions in speech.  This one is harder to quantify, but I want to utilize phrases like “a proposito” and “por cierto” more.  Even transition words like “bueno”, “pues”, and “así que”  will make my speech pattern more natural and closer to sounding like a native speaker.   This is just something  I will have to be mindful of when speaking, as I don’t have  books or exercises to do.   I also plan on writing a blog post about colloquial expressions in the near future, so I will observe natural  speech  more so than usual.   Compiling that info should be a great help to me, and hopefully to you all.      

I’m sure after I improve on these areas, new problems will creep up.  Learning a second language as an adult is a lifelong venture.  I’m just glad that it is something I enjoy, and it is truly the journey and not the destination that is the best part.    My Spanish has helped me make new friends, and develop better relationships with my family.  That makes all of it so worthwhile.   I hope your Spanish journey is as enjoyable for you as mine is for me!  

Thursday, February 13, 2014


Progress and measurement

Sometimes progress feels hard to come by for foreign language learners, especially those who do not live in a country where their target language is spoken.  I have been fortunate to have an annual event to measure my Spanish progress, our yearly trip to visit my in-laws in Panama.  Thinking back on these trips gives me gratitude for my in-laws, who have been tremendously supportive of me in my Spanish learning, and grateful for the opportunity to travel and be immersed in the language and culture, which of course is very helpful!

When I think back to our first trip to Panama in 2007, I had just 2 semesters of college Spanish and some solo study under my belt.  With the in-laws I could greet and ask some basic questions, but I mostly relied on my wife for translation.  This was of course very tiring for her, and luckily through subsequent trips I have managed to attain fluency and no longer require someone to translate. 

The bulk of my learning happened at home: listening to Spanish podcasts, reading grammar and vocabulary books, enjoying Spanish media, and jumping on every opportunity to practice speaking.  I also had the incredible fortune of a mother in law who visited for 3 months after the births of our 2 daughters, and during these visits did not use her English.  Progress was hard for me to measure day by day, but our yearly trips created a great yardstick for comparison.  

This year, I received many compliments on my Spanish from our relatives in Panama.  I also felt that I incorporated natural and colloquial expressions into my speech.  I understood nearly everything and, with very few exceptions, almost never had to ask a speaker to repeat.   I also managed to note a lot of mistakes in my speech, most notably a lot of problems with subjunctive tenses.  I love mistakes, especially when I notice them, because that means I know what I need to work on, I’m already aware of a problem, and I know what resources I can turn to for improvement in that area (Book: Spanish Subjunctive Up Close).  

Now I know not every reader has the good fortune of being able to travel to Latin America frequently, but there are other annual events that could be used as a measuring stick for your Spanish learning.  A local Latin American festival is a great place to mingle and converse (If you are in Pittsburgh that could be the Latin American and Caribbean Festival at Pitt).  Many cities have Spanish language groups on   Even a bi-monthly trip to your favorite Mexican restaurant or grocery store can be used to measure your progress, you might even get the confidence boost of a compliment from your waiter!  You’ll also notice the places you lack in your conversational skills, and will be able to make a study plan based on what you find.  Buena Suerte!