Tag Archives: language

How Do You Speak My Language So Well?

30 May

Adelia was a friend of mine when I studied abroad in Sevilla, Spain back in 2007. Years had passed without much communication, until a few months back when she began to ask me for advice on South America before a big move to Brazil. And now, after a month in Brazil, she’s in Buenos Aires for a week-long visit, and on Friday we saw each other for the first time in four years.

Even after the long time apart, she looks just as I remember, and though we’d liked to have caught up right then and there, with six other Brazilians in the pregame talking loudly and vying for attention, the best we could wiggle out was “4 years in 30 seconds, go!” One thing did happen, however, which was much more interesting. When I first got to the apartment in Las Cañitas where she’s staying with her old roommate from Sevilla (who is actually studying a Masters here) the Brazilians in the house didn’t pay much attention to me except for one who I chatted it up with. But soon they all headed out on the balcony and with Adelia speaking a few words in Portuguese, suddenly they all opened up.

I almost felt badly for her at first, knowing exactly what it feels like, You become the toy in the party and everyone wants to ask questions or grill you on something. It can be nerve wracking the first few times it happens, yet it’s also thrilling, to be able to communicate in another language. Adelia started speaking in Portuguese and the Brazilians broke into huge smiles and claimed disbelief that a foreigner could speak so well. Apparently she has an accent from some region in northwestern Brazil which couldn’t be explained by the fact that she’s from Florida. Shy and humble, she said the standard, “Oh no, I don’t speak that well…” but the Brazilians wanted more, wanted to know how she could speak their language so well. I could relate to my own triumphs with this in Spanish.

For me it was also impressive; the last time I saw Adelia we were both beginner Spanish speakers, and now here we were, in Argentina both fluent but in different languages. I don’t speak Portuguese but with the Spanish and a French background (high school education), I’m able to loosely keep up. The Brazilians even wanted to talk to me and find out how I could speak Spanish so well, as if the realization that you could speak another language was a ticket in, and it really is. As people always say, “language opens doors.”

In a single conversation we were continuously switching from Spanish-Portuguese-English, often all in the same sentence. Someone on the outside would have been totally confused by the situation. These experiences are always priceless and explain why we travel. There’s a huge difference in how you speak and also understand a culture, and it often will direct how deep the conversation can go. On a number of occasions, for example, someone here has opened up to me and told me to leave Argentina and go back home, yet not in a xenophobic way. The fact that I could speak to them well enough showed that I perhaps wasn’t just another tourist, and that they could say more to me than just “Welcome to my city” or “It’s a beautiful country”.

Study a foreign language and learn about another culture. In fact, just today the New York Times ran a piece on The Bilingual Advantage, stating that it can also help prevent or slow down the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. You would be surprised at how valuable just a few words or phrases can be, and it really makes a trip overseas worthwhile.


Alma: Is There a Concept of a “Soul” in Olde Spanishe?

26 Jul

This is an open question to the public, and if someone has an answer or opinion, I’d love to hear it. I took a history of Spain course back when I studied in Sevilla, and during one of the lessons, the professor taught us that just about any word in Spanish beginning with -al comes from Arabic. Works like almuerzo (lunch), alcohol, or almohada (pillow) derive from Arabic routes. The same can be said for alma, meaning soul. The Arabic influence in southern Spain brought in many things to the culture such as food, architecture, and of course, a different religion.

This makes me wonder: did the concept of a soul exist in Spanish before the Berbers invaded and brought their own beliefs? Is there a word in Spanish referring to a soul which can be traced back to before this time period, and if so, what are the connotations associated with it?

To Continue Griping on Learning a Language

9 Jun

Maybe this week is another wall of sorts. I’m kind of sick of speaking Spanish at the moment. Eh, no, let me clarify that. I’m not sick of speaking Spanish, but I just miss simple things like being able to clearly express myself and being totally understood. I know that people compliment me on my second language ability, but there is a definite lacking to not only say what I want to say, but to do so clearly and sound educated at the same time. I don’t want to talk like a 5 year old every day.

Little pockets of relief come in having one or two expat friends, but since the community is always growing and shrinking, it’s hard to keep things consistent, and even then I only meet up once a week if that. It gets tiring always having to strain yourself thinking of words, or knowing that you just made a mistake and trying to remember not to make it again while continuing a conversation. Speaking faster than I should is a big problem.

Every day is a challenge in some way, and I wanted to face this, to know what it’s like from the other side of the wall. Having firsthand experience of expat/immigration life has really given me a new insight on the situation back home in the United States. There is so much that people don’t understand. The struggles and little triumphs just to get your life at a point which you can call normal, and to hope that you’re not being taken advantage of because you’re not fully fluent or from that cultural background.

I think sometimes about how you rarely if ever compliment someone on their English in the United States if it’s obvious that they are a foreigner. Instead of praising them, it’s assumed that they should speak English well, and if they have a thick accent, a common misconception would be that they’re stupid. You can hold a PhD and have a thick accent from your home country.

Here, people often tell me that I speak Spanish well, sometimes with a shocked face, as if it’s assumed that as an American I will speak poorly. Yet it’s not meant as an insult, but rather a true assessment of how difficult it is to speak a foreign language well, especially one that you did not grow up with all around you. Though not in all cases, speaking a foreign language is a skill and natural talent like the natural ability in math or art. You can be born with a certain aptness for language, which is why some people are better writers than others. Otherwise, it can be learned through years of study and practice.

Many international companies have call centers here in Buenos Aires and throughout the world. The people who work there have studied for years to get a slightly better paying job, yet still most likely work terrible hours based off of U.S. time zones. Think about someone you know who has ever called for technical support and gotten frustrated over the accent or English ability of the person on the other end. First of all, if you don’t even speak another language you are in no position to complain. And to clarify, knowing “Cinco de Mayo,” “amigo,” and “bon appétit” do not count as speaking another language. Second of all, speaking over the phone is the hardest thing to do. Not being able to see mouths moving, speaking quickly into muffled connections, and background noise make it nerve-wracking. And thirdly, these people that you assume are not educated for working at a call center and having thick accents are just as or maybe more educated than most people. Don’t hate them because they don’t speak with an East coast accent. If anything, blame the company for outsourcing the work.

These are the kinds of thoughts that come into my head as I struggle with my own second language abilities. The ups and downs inevitably make me see things more clearly, which is exactly what I wanted in the first place. Never take your first language for granted because it’s a gift. The second language has to be earned.

Some Immersion Recommendations

29 May

I’ve lived abroad in three countries and each experience has been totally different, yet oddly similar in many ways. Before studying in Spain I did almost no research on Sevilla, the idea being that I didn’t want to get my hopes up and wanted to see it all fresh for the first time. It worked out well, but it also could have helped to know a thing or two about the city and culture. I remember one night I met a girl in a bar and got her number, even with my basic Spanish. We made plans to meet up at a cafe later in the week to practice Spanish and English together.

Of course I got there early, but not being savvy on the culture, I went in, ordered a coffee, and sat down waiting. I can’t picture it now, but I have to imagine that would have been normal for me in the States. The girl seemed kind of taken aback when she finally realized I was inside, and not surprisingly we never hung out again.

In Ecuador, I did a little bit of research beforehand, mostly because my organization, WorldTeach, mailed me a lot of information on it. My expectations were nothing like what I eventually found. Reading the literature, I thought I would have chickens living in my house and wash my clothes by hand with dirty water in a dark room. There are places like that in the country, but not for me in Cuenca. There was such a difference in being able to say a couple of words about the government or the president that separated me from other foreigners who just popped in for a few weeks. People actually want to talk with you when you know something about their society.

In Argentina it was similar, though even knowing a thing or two didn’t help for quite a while simply because of the culture here. It’s most closed off and more based off of trust. Now that I’ve been here 9 months I know enough about life here to be able to throw some comments in. But not only that, it’s about knowing what has recently happened. Knowing about a strike a few months back makes it much easier to relate to people. That’s why I feel like if you want to truly immerse yourself in a culture, you have to start well before you show up.

Start reading the local newspapers if you can, or at the very least look through sources like the New York Times or BBC for information on the region. This way, when you show up to where you’ll be studying or living, you have an idea about what people are talking about. Not only that, but try to figure out the local phrases, slang, etc. It’s not just the language that you need to overcome, but random buzz words that are actually more useful than complex subjunctive and conditional phrases. People will generally understand what you’re trying to say whether you sound like a professor or not. But they’ll be more likely to keep talking to you if you use the same words they use than try to talk above your level.

Watch movies, pick up a book, or find someone in your area who already knows the place for more background support. And with these things in mind, you’ll hopefully be able to hit the ground running when you land overseas.