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Something new. March 6, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Last week, our friend Ben decided to bite the bullet and learn Spanish. It happened because of a book I found at the local library Saturday used-book sale for 25 cents called Spanish for Gringos (William C. Harvey, Barron’s, 1990). The book promised that you could “Pick up the Language without Taking a Course.” And it focused on the spoken Spanish of the Americas, which is the Spanish I’m interested in learning.

Unlike the target audience of Spanish for Gringos, our friend Ben has no aversion to learning languages by taking courses. I was a language major as an undergraduate. I love learning languages. I can speak and read French, a little Italian, Middle English, a little Old French, and a smattering of Church Latin. I even attempted to learn Greek and Hebrew so I could read the Bible in the original languages, but I can’t claim to be able to read so much as a word of either today, more shame on me. (Hey, with languages as with so many other things, use it or lose it.) But I never learned Spanish.

I’m sure there are plenty of adult-ed Spanish courses I could sign up for if I had a few hundred or thousand dollars to invest in them, but I don’t. However, I figured I could manage a bit more than my initial 25-cent investment. And what I decided I needed were some Spanish-language CDs so I could work on my pronunciation.

It’s simple enough to pick up grammar and vocabulary from a book, but pronunciation is another matter. That’s especially true for us Engliah speakers, because English is a lazy language: It doesn’t require much in the way of muscle tone to speak perfectly elegant English. Other languages give your mouth muscles a much harder workout. You really need to work up to getting those muscles into shape to roll, trill, and pop your consonants, elide your vowels, pitch your intonations correctly, and speak with simultaneous sportscar speed and clarity.

English speakers out there, here’s a simple way to see the difference between English and Spanish in terms of energetic speaking, as far as our friend Ben can tell: Say the simple word “set.” Now, hiss the s and pop (or spit) the t crisply at the end of the word: “sssseh-TTT.” It takes a lot more work to say the latter than the former, doesn’t it? Now add a touch of h at the end of the popped t, “sssseh-TTTh”—but just a touch, the tongue tip moving between the front teeth rather than actually saying English th—and you’ll see what you’re really up against. It’s a brave new world when one starts to learn another language.

Not to mention that the way letters are pronounced differs widely from language to language, even among those that share the Roman alphabet. Our friend Ben has already noticed that even seemingly innocuous letters like b, t, o, l, and s are sounded quite differently in Spanish, not to mention the more major differences with v, h, j, and r. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered that the one Spanish phrase I thought I actually knew, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s famous tagline “Hasta la vista, baby,” turned out to be more like “asta la bista.”

Ouch! Clearly our friend Ben needed some help here. So I went to the local library to check out some Spanish CDs that I could listen to in the car. After being directed to the language section, I saw to my chagrin that every language pack they offered had cassettes, not CDs. The librarian on duty shrugged fatalistically and said “We haven’t been able to update because of budget cuts.” GRRRRR. Too bad the government can’t see the vital role public libraries play in our communities, making resources available to rich and poor alike. Our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, who founded the first public library in America, must be spinning in his grave. Ben, where are you when we need you?!!!

Not to be foiled by a single setback, our friend Ben next headed for the used-CD and DVD store next to the library. No dice. Then to the used-book store, which also carries a few CDs. Nada. It was time to head home and turn to my ultimate ally in this type of crisis, Amazon.

After checking out the Spanish CD offerings and rejecting those that weren’t concentrating on the Spanish of the Americas, I turned up a few that were highly recommended. I ordered “Conversational Spanish: Learn to Speak and Understand Latin American Spanish with Pimsleur Language Programs,” which features native speakers and has 16 30-minute lessons on 8 CDs (in a classy CD case) for $19. Our friend Ben was able to go through the first two lessons last night while driving a long distance to get to a dinner engagement.

I was frankly surprised at how little ground was covered in the two half-hour lessons, but they certainly drilled the language skills they were teaching very thoroughly into even our friend Ben’s admittedly porous brain. Even I can now say or ask about someone’s English and Spanish speaking and comprehension skills, inquire if they happen to be from North America, and say hello and goodbye without making an ass of myself. And true to the Pimsleur promise, I still remember how to say all that this morning.  More practice is needed to get the accent, speed, and intonation right, but fortunately, I still have 14 lessons to go and am not at all averse to repeating them over and over.

Other CD courses that got very high marks on Amazon are “Behind the Wheel—Spanish 1,” $29.14, and “SPANISH in 10 minutes a day AUDIO CD,” $35.01, both intended to be listened to while commuting in one’s car. Our friend Ben would like to check them out as well.

So I’m finally giving it a go. If anyone out there has any recommendations, our friend Ben would love to hear them. Meanwhile, they say that learning a language, like learning math and music, lights up the brain. After this past deadening, snowy, icy, bitterly cold winter, I know I could benefit from turning up the wattage in mine!



1. Barbee' - March 6, 2011

I don’t even know how to pronounce about a fourth of the English words that I have read throughout my lifetime. Many times I have looked in a dictionary, but that didn’t always help… did you know not all dictionaries use the same pronunciation markings?! I was grown before I realized that the word I read as cha sm is the same as the one I was hearing spoken as ka sm. And, that is only the beginning. You are industrious to study another language. I won’t even go into the time I decided to learn American Sign Language.

I know the feeling, Barbee’! I can’t tell you how humiliated I was to discover that the parakeets I’d kept and loved all my life as “budge-JER-ih-gars” were actually “bujjerih-GARS.” And let’s not even go into misinterpreted meanings, such as my misunderstanding my beloved mother’s reading of “The Walrus and the Carpenter” as “ceiling wax.” For years I wondered about people who waxed their ceilings, a technique I’d never seen or encountered! Sigh.

Barbee' - March 6, 2011

Ha, ha, good one! Reminds me of my childhood confusion related to the Christmas song ‘Winter Wonderland’ when we sang “In the meadow we can build a snowman,Then pretend that he is Parson Brown”. I didn’t know what a parson is. I heard it as: pretend that he is parch and brown. Didn’t make sense at all. Why pretend he is something that would melt him.

Oh, mercy, Barbee’! I grew up with “Then pretend that he is Father Brown,” so I didn’t have that problem. But on the other hand, it was quite a shock to discover in later life that that was a bowdlerized version!

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