Monday, January 12, 2009

Spanish for Dummies

I think it's incredible that some people can pick up languages just like that - and be fluent in like three, or four, or twenty different languages all at once.

In any case, I think most people are like me - distinguished more by their ineptitude rather than aptitude - when it comes to languages. I spent seven consecutive years at school taking courses in French, I've lived in Paris for two whole months - and still I can still mess up the verb conjugation for (or perhaps totally forget how to say) the simple question: "Ou sont les toilettes?"

However, I can communicate in Spanish! And I have never taken any proper classes, whether at the local community college/university/spanish centre. It could be that the Argentinians I communicated with were incredibly kind and forgiving and willing to make an effort to try to understand what I'm saying despite my complete mangling of the language...*

Or could it be the Pimsleur? We've been to Buenos Aires twice without having to resort to interpreters or having to follow any tango tour. I've had no problem getting by without having to speak in English, and sometimes I've even had interesting conversations with Portenos!

While there's nothing like living in Argentina for months and months and getting a Spanish tutor (As if!! we can all be so lucky and live off a trust fund) for Spanish language fluency, here's some of my no-fuss, minimal effort recommendations for getting up to speed in Spanish, by yourself, on the fly:

1. Rosetta Stone

This is just like the "flash card" method of language learning - but better, because you are forced to interact with the flash cards in multiple ways to test your listening and reading comprehension. You can also learn how to write some Spanish by regurgitating the tags on the flash card at the prompt. There's also a voice recognition part that assesses the accuracy of your accent. That was very handy. The first time I was forced to speak in spanish I was told that although what I said made no sense and was grammatically incorrect, it was just plain amazing that I had absolutely no "gringo" accent at all! I spoke like a native spanish speaker (some hinted from Miami) except the words were all in the wrong order.

That's the thing with Rosetta. You get to learn a lot of vocabulary. And it's never boring because after a while you are like Pavlov's dog, addicted to doing more lessons because clicking on the correct responses gives you the "smiley face" and "bell of approval" - but teaching you how to put the vocab together in grammatical sentences is not Rosetta's strong point. Still, I learned lots of words and learned to pronounce PERFECTLY - because if I didn't, the indicator arrow for the voice recognition will stay in the red danger zone. No-one wants a glaring, flashing red reminder of suckiness - give me the "Green Light" and "Smiley Face" any day!

2. Pimsleur Spanish

This is so great - the favourite of all my Spanish learning aids. There are three levels with 30 half-hour lessons each, plus an "Advanced" level with an additional 10 lessons. Just pop a CD in the car (or play one of the lessons onyour mp3 player) on your commute and you are literally brainwashed into learning Spanish. In a creepy, hypnotic way, the knowledge just seeps into your brain as you are interrogated into responding in Spanish by the speakers in each lesson. The vocabulary is not extensive but you will get an innate and natural feel for grammar and sentence construction. You will start speaking and understanding spanish without thinking or translating into English first. Pimsleur Spanish complements Rosetta Stone very well in this respect.

3. Margarita Madrigal's "Magic Key to Spanish"

Magic Key indeed. If Rosetta Stone is for vocabulary, Pimsleur is for speech, Madrigal explains to you how it all works and ties it all together. You will get enough grammar to get by in day-to-day situations, presented in ways that are simple to understand and remember. With illustrations by Andy Warhol. All for $10.36! A steal.

4. Joseph J. Keenan's "Breaking out of Beginner's Spanish"

Hillarious and entertaining book. You will avoid some of the most common pitfalls in Spanish if you take Keenan's advice to heart. Plus a great big chapter on swear words and situation-appropriate insults.

5. Destinos: An introduction to Spanish

The haircuts and fashions are so eighties, but production values on this 52 episode "Telenovela" (Soap opera) Spanish learning video series are high and this is just a great (free) way to immerse yourself in the language. Bonus: Not only does the heroine meet a rich, handsome ARGENTINIAN who dances tango, he falls head over heels in love with her and decides to abandon his psychiatry practice so that he can move to California to be with his beloved! (Almost) every tanguera's secret fantasy.

6. Harry Potter

The best way to learn Spanish is just to STICK WITH IT. The worst way is to get bored and give up. All the language learning programs/aids I've used have had something special about them - whether it's Pavlovian conditioning, humour, hypnosis, simple memory aids or suspense/romantic fantasy - to keep the me interested and willing to stay learning. For additional practice, nothing beats the Harry Potter books - the stories are thrilling no matter what language they're in. And if you haven't read Harry Potter because you're afraid people would think you were being childish, look forward to looks of admiration when you tell them that you are reading it in SPANISH!

*In fact, Man Yung doesn't understand Spanish at all but he's had entire conversations with Argentinians in which the Argentinians spoke nothing but Spanish and he spoke nothing but Chinese and a little English.


ModernTanguera said...

I got Harry Potter in Catalan for this exact purpose! (Well, obviously to help my Catalan-learning rather than Spanish, but you know.) It's a great idea!

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of a conversation my non-Japanese speaking mom had with a non-English speaking Japanese woman. They "spoke" for hours and had a blast :-)

Anonymous said...

Last week my Argentine friend Rosanna offered to correct my Castellano during conversation so that I could improve after ten years of living in BsAs without taking one class. After four days I was so tired of hearing all my mistakes that I gave up. I told my friend Monna that I would speak to her in English, and she could speak in Castellano. She doesn't mind because it improves her understanding English. I was tired of having to self-correct and repeat myself.

I have Margarite Madrigal's Key to Spanish text. I've recommended it to dancers who don't speak a word of Spanish. At least I had the benefit of 2-1/2 years of study in high school...many years ago.

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