Saturday, April 16, 2016

It Takes Two to Tengo (and other language learning adventures)

It's been a while since I've updated where I am regarding our learning of la lengua materna here in Ecuador, Spanish.  I'll try to be serious, but believe me, there's humor interspersed for the taking!

Presently I am not teaching or tutoring near as much as I had hoped to, largely due to my adult student "dropping out" in an informal way, likely to save face.  The machismo culture found in Latin America is one where you don't admit fault or weakness, and the cessation of class sessions on his part without any formal notification is the result.  That's the way it goes, and so I don't get the Spanish interaction I had been getting through him.  I'm looking at another venue where I may informally hold conversation with native Spanish speakers in English, but haven't done anything just yet.  

So I have in at least the last few weeks been relying more on Duolingo on the 'Net for Spanish language interaction.  Not as spontaneous or unstructured as a live conversation with a native Spanish speaker, but it will do.  I have since January been completing what's known as a "reverse tree" where one knows Spanish (I do: I completed the English speaker learning Spanish "tree" around Christmas) and learns English.  What that does is test my Spanish language abilities and finds out just how much Spanish I really know in the "learning" of English, from a Spanish speaker's point of view.  Since I am a native English speaker, I am really finding a "reverse" or backhanded way to see how much Spanish I really know.  I'm game, and the system allows me to take lessons this way.  

As I expected, I am spending more time with articles and verbs.  I need work in these areas, and over time (currently I'm on a 285 consecutive day streak on Duolingo) I'm getting better in the use of these parts of speech.  But it's a struggle at times, I'll admit.

Take soy and estoy for example.  In English, you simply say "I am."  In Spanish, however, there's a distinction going on that you have to think about as you are talking or writing.  Soy is permanent, as in "I am a boy."  (Yo soy un nin~o.)  Unless you are making the Bruce Jenner argument - let's not go there, please - you are a boy permanently.  So soy is used.  

Estoy cansado, on the other hand, is temporary.  Furthermore, it is a feeling.  You feel tired.  I am tired.  Therefore, estoy cansado/I am tired (from an experiential perspective).  And you won't feel tired forever, another reason to use estoy.  

While I'm at it, cansado is tired, while casado is married.  One letter makes all the difference!  Not to mention peine, which means "comb," and pene, which means. . . you know.  Yep, one letter makes a huge difference.  

There's a number of words that are used in Spanish that are not ever used in English.  Here's a phrase: at nine (o'clock).  In English, you merely say "at nine." In Spanish you say a las nueve/"at the nine," which has the meaning of "at nine," as we say in English.  This takes practice to add from a native English speaker's perspective, dear friends!  Trust me on this: old habits are hard to break.  

Furthermore, why do they use "las" and not "la?"  It's not "las nueves" or any plural like that.  Can be confusing, folks.  This is what I mean about articles being confusing.  One can be just one letter off in a sentence in Duolingo and the whole sentence is marked wrong as a result.  Frustrating to say the least.  

Consider the simple sentence "You did go to church."  In Spanish this becomes Tu fuiste a la iglesia.  We native English speakers would call the "la" superfluous, but in Spanish it's incorrect to leave the article out of the sentence.  It's what I call a "hidden" article, and one has to learn and know when to insert articles such as these.  Practice!  Notice in the above example sentence the double use of "you" employed.  There is Tu - the familiar form of you - used at the beginning, and -te added to fuis to drive the article home again in the sentence.  If you miss it once, you get it again. . . that's Spanish grammar for you.  So the English translation of the Spanish sentence spoken in "dorkese" English is "You (did) go [you] to [the] church."  Gotta include the -te as well as the la or Duolingo marks the sentence as incorrect.  

Where is a native Spanish speaker to model after in situations like the one I just mentioned above. . . (sigh)  It would surely help!

Articles in a Spanish sentence don't take the same locations in an English sentence.  For example, take "This shoe fits me well."  In Spanish this becomes Este zapato me queda bien.  Notice it's me queda and not "queda me."  One uses Spanish grammar in a Spanish sentence. . . and has to have that Spanish language mindset as one approaches using the language.  Otherwise you're pounding square pegs into round holes grammarwise.  Quite the losing battle, and Duolingo will let you know each and every mistake you make along the way.  

So one has to think, for example, "This shoe me fits well."  That's not grammatical English, but it's grammatical Spanish in English word form.  Take it one step further, and keep the words en Espan~ol thinking in Spanish as you say or write the sentence.  This is the crux of the matter as one constructs longer and more precise and complex Spanish sentences.  

Let's go up a step.  Take "She did not ask me."  This becomes Ella no me pregunto'.  Notice the location of the words. . . "She (did) not me ask."  Sounds kinda dorky when you say it in English, right?  (smile)  That's my observation too from an native English speaker's standpoint.  Don't stay with "Tonto language" like what you may remember from The Lone Ranger films. . . Necesitas traducir las palabras en Espan~ol.  Take it the whole way.  Ella no me pregunto'.  Thinking thoughts like that en Espan~ol over time becomes a way of life. 

Another one: "He did not find me."  This becomes E'l no me encontro.  The "dorky" way to say it is "He (did) not me find."  There's a lot of "not me" or no me in Spanish sentences and conversation.  After a while it becomes reflexive with practice.  

Some verb conjugations, sad to say, are obscure and not used as much, making them harder to get right in a sentence.  For example, "You did not find me."  Sounds similar - in English, anyway - to our previous sentence, right?  However, en Espan~ol, it becomes Tu no me encontraste.  Enconstraste?  How did they come up with that one?  I can conjugate the present tense of encontrar (find, encounter, come upon) all day long: yo encuentro, tu encuentras, nosotros encontramos, ellos encuentran.  Still learning as you can see.  I know. . . it's an "-as ending with the extra -te thrown in.  The double "you" employed here.  Takes practice.  

Back to "dorkese," if you will.  Here's a sentence: "I have already done it."  This becomes Ya lo he hecho.  In dorkese English that's "Already it (I) have done."  As you can see, the word order based on Spanish grammar rules are entirely different than found in English usage.  Which word to start out with?  "Already."  I have that down pat, thankfully.  The "it" comes next, and I'm still learning that part.  "I have" comes last in terms of articles in this sentence, and finally we have our verb "done" (present perfect).  Talk about shaking up your language world and spitting it out. . . that's how a sentence like that feels to me.  I feel "naked" and wonder what word comes next, in what order.  But, on the other hand, it's beautiful romance language phrasing that rolls off the tongue with remarkably few syllables.

One rule is to place the pronouns before the verbs.  Take for example "They can reach us."  This becomes Ellos nos pueden alcanzar.  Dorkese: "They us can reach."  Notice the pronouns coming first, in order: they and us.  Notice also another Spanish grammar rule employed: the first verb is conjugated (pueden) and the second verb is left as an unconjugated infinitive (alcanzar.)  Practice. . . getting there!  It helps that in Cuenca there is a lodging called "Mansion Alcanzar" which caters to expats. . . literally it means "mansion to reach."  Not a bad name to have if one desires to reach Cuenca and wants to remember the name of the place you want to stay at. . . reach for alcanzar.  Makes sense!

Deja is not deja vu (which is French for "already seen."  Deja (en Espan~ol) is "(he/she/formal you//let/left/leave."  But "let's go" is vamos, or in imperative form, !Vamonos!  The verb swallows up the . . . verb.  What's that all about?  Your guess is as good as mine!  Actually, vamos - "we go" - is in its many conjugations of ir - to go - one of the stronger verb forms in Spanish.  Voy a has the sense of "I am going to" or "I will go to."  And it's always voy a never forgetting the a.  That's the grammar rule.

If you've read this far, congratulations!  You have a good sense, I hope, of the "mountain" that learning the finer points of Spanish entails.  I'm far past the beginning level, and am solidly in the intermediate or advanced levels, depending on what part of my language abilities are being tested.  The easy work of review of elementary Spanish has already been done.  What remains is climbing the higher reaches - the "Matterhorn" of more precise and ultimately useful Spanish speaking and writing.  I had hoped to be able to get by here in Ecuador with what I already knew of my elementary and conversational level Spanish.  Yet I am at levels never previously attained.  At my older age, that's quite an achievement and one I'm glad to be still working on.  The ability to understand and converse and participate in Spanish language conversations here in Cuenca - after all, it's the language they use everyday - is gratifying, and one finds that the Cuencanos/as amongst us are just like the ones we knew in Southern California, and have quite a lot in common.  Knowing more Spanish simply opens up one's world to a whole lot more, living in their land, their culture, and their language.  

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