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Do I actually speak Spanish?

Saturday, April 30, 2011

This just might become a new weekly tradition: homemade pizza dough, homemade tomato sauce (the sauce they sell here reminds me of katsup, and canned tomatoes are nowhere to be found), mozzarella (found a semi-fresh ball for $3.50, a worth splurge!), mushrooms (from a $1.75 can), and fresh basil (from our garden– that part I can’t replicate weekly).  Sure, the pizza took an hour and a half to cook instead of ten minutes, because it turns out even when you stuff your wood stove full, it doesn’t get to 400˚; but seriously, I got to eat this for dinner, and I get to eat the rest for lunch?  I almost couldn’t be happier, except for the fact that I won’t be running with horses anytime soon because I sprained my ankle today in attempt to hike a nearby mountain (don’t worry, I’m fine, they sell ibuprofen in Palena).  I also learned some new words: ibuprofeno, esguince (sprain, noun), tocer (sprain, verb), tobillo (ankle).

Here’s where I’m at with Spanish: frustrated, but not defeated.  My first month here I diligently kept a running list of new vocabulary in a little red notebook, just like our Waring teachers taught us to do in France.  I could brag about shining moments, such as recently when I was able to fully understand and participate in a high-speed, high-stress, extremely-Chilean-slang-laden team meeting.  But many times I am frustrated, and I haven’t done much about it since school started.  Sure, my level is “advanced” or something, but there’s still plenty of times when I can’t find the right word, when I can hear my bad pronunciation, when I trip over a conjugation.

I think part of the problem is that Americans have such low expectations about foreign language learning.  If you can have a two minute conversation with a native speaker, or flip through a magazine, that’s impressive.  But when I think about the level I want, I think about my high school French teacher: the only flaw I ever encountered in her English (besides slightly too-good-to-be-true pronunciation) was that she didn’t know the word for muff, as in the Shakespearean lampshade/dog collar thing.

Friday's delivery. We spent a good hour stacking it.

So in the past few weeks, I’ve been taking Spanish on again.  I am trying to replace at least some of my media time (reading and watching TV/movies online) with Spanish materials.  I took out a contemporary novel (librarian = father of two students) by a famous Chilean author I’ve read before, Marcela Serrano — Para que no me olvides — and once I got the basic frame, I am reading it pretty quickly.  Today I did a little experiment, and wrote down every word I didn’t know for one chapter.  Result?  Average 2.7 words per page, and a good portion of these I basically got from context, or said, “Oh, of course!” when I looked up the definition.  I normally read without a dictionary for speed, but sometimes it is nice to concentrate a bit.  And it feels honest.  Now of course, this chapter was a scene of three women complaining about men on the occasion of a fortieth birthday; this was not the hardest vocabulary, but yet an award-winning book, perhaps the equivalent of a Barbara Kingsolver novel.

I’m also watching a Chilean TV show that one of my Foundation co-workers turned me on to: El laberinto de Alicia, Alicia’s Labyrinth.  It is about a pedophilia mystery in a fictional private school in Santiago (called Shelter School, yes, in English), but it’s also about the various divorces, relationships, and steamy affairs of the school’s parents and teachers.  Jumping into a show mid-season requires a fair amount of effort in one’s native language, so for me it’s more, but after my friend filled me in during the ads, this week I’ve been watching it on my own (Mondays- Thursdays, 10:30).  It’s fun to hear actors using all of the Chilenismos that I have never encountered outside of Palena, and since I don’t otherwise watch TV, even the advertisements and tail end of the preceding news program are interesting.

And lastly (anyone still reading?), I’m doing a systematic grammar review.  I Kindle-bought  Practice Makes Perfect: Advanced Spanish Grammar by Rogelio Alonso Vallecillos, and tonight (while that pizza was cooking for an hour) I worked on the first chapter, object pronouns.  Clearly somebody should be patting themselves on the back (Waring?  Smith?  my parents?), because it looks like I am a bit of a life-long learner after all.  It feels really good to be assured that my ear for these things is mostly right, but to remember the rule so that I can go back to that when I’m unsure.

I don’t know if this post is of any interest to anyone, but it felt good for me to write.  Maybe I’ll write a post sometime about this whole process of blogging– what do I say?  What is my audience?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Eliza permalink
    Saturday, April 30, 2011 8:38 pm

    I looove this blog 🙂 I know exactly what you mean about the low standards – my Brazilian friend David’s level reminds me of your French teacher’s level, and isn’t it just mind boggling? What did they DO to get there?

    Love you, miss you!

  2. Katy permalink
    Saturday, April 30, 2011 8:40 pm

    Loved to read it and follow yr life! XO Katy

  3. David Russell permalink
    Sunday, May 1, 2011 7:07 am

    You ask if anyone is still reading and if this post is of interest to anyone: Of course! For me and a bet a large percentage of readers of Latitude 43 part of the fascination is wondering how is it that you can live in Spanish. Very few of us have had that kind of experience. What this post does is to take us inside that. Yes, you are doing that amazingly, but, also, the story is not so simple. How could it not be that you’d feel you come up short in some situations. Your experience with Spanish, extensive as it is by our standards, is still a fraction of that of native speakers. I bet it does make sense to slow yourself down sometimes, work with the grammar book, look things up in the dictionary, etc. Your title is a good one. What does she mean? it makes us wonder what you are going to say. And you are only about a bit more than a quarter through your time in Chile. I bet that you will be much further along in your language by the time you depart. You will probably be a bit of a curiosity to Spanish speakers here: Are you from South America? BTW the pizza looks wonderful!!!

  4. jane woodman permalink
    Sunday, May 1, 2011 9:21 am

    Meg – YOU get the pat on the back you life-long-learner you. I better get my own spanish at least to the token level you described… And the pizza? Love your standards in the kitchen too, xoxo

  5. Donna permalink
    Monday, May 2, 2011 8:39 pm

    Hey Meg! Don’t know about the rest of your fans, but this faithful reader loves to hear about all that you’re doing, seeing, feeling, tasting… So don’t stop!

    Hope the ankle heals quickly.

  6. sally johnson permalink
    Tuesday, May 3, 2011 11:50 am

    so sorry about your ankle and not running for a bit…you’ll get back to it, I’m sure ( and the horses!) what an example you are to all of us, so spoiled with even temperatured ovens and easily procured pizza makings! And the heap of wood reminds me of my sister in VT who heats with thier wood stove and also has to stack cords of wood.
    Never having gotten the hang of ANY other language but English, all you are learning and doing is such an inspiration to me. TV shows too? WOW! And even checking up on grammar, when was the last time any of us did that!
    Saw your folks last weekend for dinner and catch up. they are looking forward to their visit in July. Wish I could curl up in their suitcase and join them. Also wish you could curl up and join us for Dan and Nicole’s wedding. Coming up so fast! 🙂
    Love you lots,

  7. Thursday, May 5, 2011 7:56 pm

    Margaret, I think your blog is amazing. I love to think of you, thriving (not just surviving!) in a land far away. I feel closer to you now, via our shared blog reading, than I have in a long time. Keep up the grammar and pizza. Yum to both. Lots of love. xoxo

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