Monday, May 04, 2009

Past improved - on getting there in Spanish

In September 2007 whilst still in Beijing I penned the fateful words:

I've just started learning Spanish while keeping up with the Chinese and I so look forward to the day that I can sit in a restaurant in Santiago de Compostela and talk with those around me naturally. I'm smiling now thinking of the first time I will be able to open up a Marquez and read the words in their untouched form.
In reality my attempts to learn Spanish while in China quickly sank without trace and I only started when I arrived here.

So, yesterday, I found myself in the main bookstore in the centre of Santiago, looking for some Hemmingway or Steinbeck that I had already read, translated into Spanish. I couldn't quite decide what to go for when "Cien años de soledad" caught my eye. I laughed to myself, wondering how much longer it would be until I was allowed to open the pages of such a book, but with nobody watching I took it off the shelf and started reading the first sentence...and the second, and the third. There was something rather confusing. I had expected code, something for which I would need a key which would only be bestowed on me when I 'knew' Spanish. In fact it was written in a language which I could follow, if not fluently, then certainly with a respectable comprehension. I decided to go for it and ditched the idea of buying my favourite American authors in their bastardised form. I went straight to a cafe, placed myself in the sun and dived in.

An hour, and some thirty pages later I put it down, tired, but happy. There are many words that I don't understand, but I have plenty to build an almost complete picture of what is happening. I'm also not reading it with a dictionary because I believe what you save in comprehension you lose in fluency and I'm understanding enough that picking up the dictionary several times every page will make the whole process more painful than it should be. I'm quickly learning that there are a few unknown words which recurr frequently and these can be looked up after the fact.

Today I plugged away for another hour and I'm enjoying it a great deal. It's going to take me a few weeks at this rate given that I only have time to read at the weekends (I usually read before sleeping but Marquez in Spanish requires my complete attention) but this has already given me a good confidence boost (which as a trend I find is usually followed by a big kick in the linguistic privates).

In addition to the Marquez, I've spent this evening with a couple of Spaniards who are friends of my current Portuguese couchsurfer. During our dinner we discussed string theory, the anthropic principle, our respective views on God and religion (I discover post facto that they are Jehovah's witnesses, though they absolutely didn't fit my stereotype), evolution and intelligent design, not to mention a brief foray into the unusual world of composting toilets, almost entirely in Spanish. This isn't to say that it was a perfectly fluent conversation but I'd like to think that they didn't leave more confused about the world due to my linguistic inabilities, but rather that they discovered a side of things which perhaps they hadn't considered before.

Anyway, so, this is where I am after learning Spanish for a year and a half. In the last year I've probably averaged about a lesson every three weeks as I'm usually too busy to organise or go to a class, but the amount of time I'm spending speaking Spanish has gone up considerably. I have a long, long way to go to get comfortable, and in particular I find that speaking in Spanish around my colleagues, with whom I've been speaking solely English for the time I've been here, is proving harder than I'd like.


Tomorrow I'm off to Barcelona for a meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday and will be back online in Santiago some time on Thursday. Until then...

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