Spain according to Anno

We’d all like to learn a language by osmosis, with a gramar book under the pillow at night. I haven’t found a technique that works yet, but this is as close as I got.

 

I often feel I should be learning something Spanish-related but just can’t face irregular verbs. So when I collapse on the sofa in the evening after the kids’ bedtime “routine” of bribery and threats, I pick up this lovely wordless picture book by Mitsumasa Anno and ponder over his beautiful illustrations of Spain and all things Spanish:

 

Mitsumasa Anno's Spain

Mitsumasa Anno’s Spain

 

I love the way Anno ties in major cultural and historic events along with plain old life. And it’s a good start for understanding the cultural reference points that form the fabric of the Spanish common heritage. Context is everything, after all – remember the man named Maria? If you come to understand a people then you will understand what they are going on about and learn how to be understood by them. That’s my theory.

windmills in Anno's Spain

windmills in Anno’s Spain

In English it’s just titled Anno’s Spain and there’s a whole series. Highlights include the running of the bulls, Picasso’s Guernica, the olive harvest, Don Quijote tilting at windmills and cork extraction.

upside down in Anno's Spain

upside down in Anno’s Spain

 

Will it help me with the imperfect subjunctive? I doubt it. Will it make me feel less guilty for not digging my grammar book out from under my pillow? Definitely.

 


 

This wordless cuento has many stories hidden in the illustrations, including actual history, so it’s a lovely gentle way to introduce these concepts to kids. Remember that in Spain you buy books from your local librería but borrow them from la biblioteca. If you always have your nose in a book then you’re a ratón de biblioteca. Drawings are dibujos or ilustraciones, but if it’s a painting (una pintura) like those by famous artists shown in this book, then you can choose between un retrato, a portrait or un cuadro (even if it’s not cuadrado, square). Look out French-speakers, el cuadro is the picture, whereas the picture frame is un marco.

 

The voice in my head

The voice in my head has started speaking Spanish. I’m not talking about some personal revelation, my conscience, or an auditory hallucination. I’m talking about that internal monologue that tells and retells my life as I live it. I’ve always had an inner narrator. I don’t let it out that often. Still, that doesn’t stem the tide of narrative. In fact if anything it needs a release onto paper, onto the keyboard, or it gets a bit frenetic. My inner voice is what makes me write.

 

The monologue relates, but it also thinks ahead, prepares dialogues for upcoming situations, most of which never take place. Unbidden, my inner voice has switched to Spanish to script these hypothetical dialogues, in preparation for the day’s or week’s events. Pretty poor Spanish I might add. With a slim vocabulary. As if listening to oneself talk wasn’t bad enough. So that’s added motivation to steam ahead with my Spanish lessons since I am tired of communicating in such a limited fashion, both with the real world and with my inner chatterbox.

jacaranda in the evening sun

jacaranda in the evening sun

 

I finally got to the stage where my Spanish was at about the same level as my French was after 6 months in France. I can hold a conversation, read magazines and newspapers. On the other hand, normal conversation with two or more people is often too fast or idiomatic to understand, and films are the pits. I watched one the other night with a plot so obvious that I got the whole story, but despite that I hardly understood any of the dialogue. Kind of similar to a film I started watching in Gujarati. I can’t remember how many French films I saw before I started getting the dialogue. But I do remember a point a few months after moving to Paris when I stopped translating what I heard into English in my head. It was the point when I began to just hear and understand without thinking about it in English.

 

Now I feel the need to try and break through a barrier and understand normal-speed real-life Spanish, so I’ve begun watching the evening news. I’ve also put a Spanish news feed on my phone, that way I’ll see in print the names of felons, politicians and other headline personalities, to help me understand the news.

 

I am trying to keep the linguistic boundaries clear for the kids, so I don’t put on Spanish telly or radio when they are around, even though this limits how much exposure I can get. I do read them library books in Spanish. But in general I leave the Spanish to the Spaniards so we can maintain good levels of French and English in the home.

 

Until now I have learnt Spanish mostly via French, since they are so similar. I was constantly looking for the link with French. Now, though, I need to cut free and try to immerse myself in Spanish as much as possible, and shoo away thoughts in French and English that slow me down. The voice in my head needs consistency to make any sense. Real immersion. I’m unappreciative when teachers tell me the meaning of Spanish words in English. I prefer an incomplete understanding in the foreign language to an exact correspondence in my own, because it gets me thinking in Spanish, not converting to Spanish.

 

In the meantime I’m getting more interference when speaking French, with little Spanish words sneaking in here and there. It’s annoying, but I guess inevitable.

 

Even my mobile phone can hear the voice in my head. When I hit the space bar to change the language of the keyboard, it used to switch from English to French first, and then on a second tap, to Spanish, my third most used language. But clearly it has been eavesdropping; it now switches straight to Spanish, leaving French to drag behind in third place.

 


 

A fourth language in small doses

Arabic is now the family language my kids hear the least of. They overhear a bit from the grandparents and I still read occasional stories in Arabic which they love. We still use the phrases they have learnt. But Spanish has had a major boost recently in our family, with my four-year old starting school in Spanish and the two-year old getting occasional Spanish babysitting while I myself go off to Spanish lessons.

 

Fi shi? Looking for letters

Fi shi? Looking for letters

Since we already have three languages in our daily life, and since I am not a fluent Arabic speaker, it is only a small part of our life. In our current circumstances, there’s neither the exposure nor the need in place to get my kids to speak Arabic well.  All the same, I didn’t want to drop it entirely. And so we keep it alive in two very limited contexts: animals and the letter box. This might seem odd. But many multilingual families – whether it be in first world TCK multilingualism or third world nationwide multilingualism – work on the basis of one language for one place/situation/context.

 

So we use words they already know from our books like The Odd Egg, and from our animal alphabet cards and the conversational Arabic I learnt living in Lebanon to talk about animals we have seen, often on our regular trips to the local zoo. I don’t know if anyone ever got as much use out of their year pass as we have in the past 12 months!

 

As well, we talk Lebanese Arabic about the letter box. Yes, this is the weird bit. It usually starts with the guessing game “Fi shi ow ma fi shi?” Once we find out what is in the mail, if anything, we discuss that. A lot, a little, a letter, who for, who from, where from? Sometimes the conversation continues as we take the lift up home and open anything interesting. It’s two minutes of Arabic a day, most days. It is what it is. A thread, a connection. And they love it.

 


 

Stressing over stress

Recently, my Spanish teacher tried to teach us where to write acute accents in Spanish. The first rule was: Agudas: son las palabras cuya sílaba tónica es la última. Llevan tilde cuando terminan en vocal, n o s. The other rules applied to llanas and esdrújulasThese three categories refer to which syllable the stress falls on.

 

The problem is I usually don’t know where to put the stress (or tonic accent) in the first place before even asking myself what the final letter is, and if therefore it needs a written accent. So I decided I’d best turn the thing around and learn the stress rules first, since accents are usually used to show exceptions to the stress rules.

 

The rules of stress are roughly the following:

  1. In most cases the stress is on the last syllable;
  2. However, if the last letter of the word is a vowel (very common) or an s or an n, then the stress should be on the penultimate syllable. This gave me a starting point for pronouncing words I don’t know well in Spanish. The next stage is as follows:
  3. Words following these two rules don’t need accents. Words that don’t follow these rules need accents on their stressed syllables to show that they are exceptions;
  4. It follows that:
  • all words with the stress on the third-to-last or fourth-to-last syllable need an accent on that syllable (eg, el estómago, or the grouped form dándomelo)
  • any word ending with a vowel or s or n which doesn’t have the stress on the penultimate syllable needs an accent (el jardín)
  • any word ending with the other consonants which doesn’t have the stress on the last syllable needs an accent (fácil)

 

For me, learning the topic in this order was easier. You don’t need to memorise number 4 since you can deduce it from the rest. If you are already fluent and just need to learn how to write correctly, the other perspective probably works better.

Apart from showing stress, there are a couple of other reasons for using accents in Spanish, but that is enough for me for one night!

How I plan to learn Spanish fast

I’m really not very patient with languages. I do like them, but being bad at them is not a stage I enjoy. I have been on a plateau for the past year. Any improvement has been unnoticeable. Now, with one of my two little ones in school, I finally have time to learn properly, and I want to learn fast. So this is my plan. Feel free to share your language learning plan, too.

 

Step one: Enrol in classes

Technically I should be able to get my oral practice from the neighbours and my grammar from the books, but I find classes a real motivation, and you do learn from others’ mistakes as well as your own. I’ll be aiming to get my money’s worth by taking the teacher all the awkward questions that come into my head between lessons.

 

My faithful grammar guide

My faithful grammar guide

Step two: Use a good grammar guide

Not a textbook, just a go-to guide with an irregular verb table and the grammar rules spelt out. A guide like this keeps different tenses and other concepts in their places.

Step three: Use every opportunity to talk

Even though I am living in Spain, at my level of non-fluency, these opportunities arrive and then disappear very fast. Once you’ve greeted some acquaintance, like the other mums at my daughter’s school, the conversation can either tail off or get interesting. Most of my conversations tail off very quickly. Even in a shop, you can either get by with a few words and gestures, or you can find the accurate way to ask for what you want and include some details. To try to get more practice, I have started planning what to say in situations that I know are coming up – the doctor, teacher, shops, anything. Since you actually do use what you plan, it gets embedded in your memory; it’s way more effective than memorising vocabulary for some theoretical future use.

Jumping on opportunities also means accepting to use very, very basic language to start a conversation, or even asking a question you think you probably already know the answer to, just to get things started. Hey, at least if you’re right then there’s a fair chance you’ll understand the answer. It’s tough having to look stupid to all these new people you’re actually trying to make a good impression with, but I figure I’ll feel cleverer when I can actually speak Spanish.

 

Spanish in the park (with the toddler on the next swing)

Spanish in the park (with my toddler on the next swing)

Step four: Work at home

Or in a café. But on my own (that is, with the baby), going through the class notes, revising new vocabulary, looking up any words I wanted to say but couldn’t think of, checking my grammar guide for the right way to conjugate some verb, or to form some tense. Also talking with friends about my language questions, as well as things I’ve just learnt. Teaching others is one of the best forms of repetition for a learner, so make sure to tell someone the new stuff you come across. I try everything out on my husband, who fortunately also wants to learn. When I was learning French I would revise classes with a fellow student afterwards.

Step five: Read for pleasure

Roald Dahl, here I come again. The local library has a few translated Roald Dahl books marked 10 years and over. They are just the right level for me. You want to find books where you can understand the story without a dictionary, or else it’s too slow to be motivating. When you meet unknown words you can guess, look them up, or skip them. Dahl’s books are good because I have vague memories of the storyline from, um, about 20 years ago. But it would be better to have books originally written in Spanish, I just haven’t had time to scour the library shelves and find the right level along with a good read. Reading isn’t just about books; packaging labels, newspaper headlines, adverts, posters and graffiti – they all count. I still remember the satisfaction of finally understanding the cultural references and bad puns in slogans on the billboards in the Paris metro stations.

Step six: Pay attention to culture

This comes in conjunction with all the other steps (that’s why Roald Dahl isn’t as good as native Spanish options, but it’s better than nothing). This is more than knowing the stereotypes. There’s a difference between knowing that the Spanish have a late lunch and knowing that the builders are going to disappear at 12 noon for something they call desayuno. See below for more.

 


Men called Maria

I already knew that all Spanish women of a certain age seem to have Maria as part of their name. When I had to find which parent was collecting the school supplies fee, and asked one of the other mums, I didn’t get all of her response. I understood it was “Maria” who was standing over there wearing a “camiseta gris”. I couldn’t see a mum in a grey top at all. “Con las gafas?” I asked, but she said no, dark hair, no sunglasses. The only one I could see with dark hair and no sunglasses had a pale blue top on. I wondered if the mum helping me was colour blind since she was definitely pointing that way. So tentatively I approached the blue top lady. Only to have a guy come over and introduce himself as José Maria and offer me a receipt for the fee. The penny finally dropped. Thinking of Maria as a woman had blinded me to his grey T-shirt. I should have known this, as France has its own share of men called Jean-Marie and the like, but they are usually not the same generation as me (think: Le Pen). The moral of the tale? Knowing what to expect is half the hard work.

First impressions of Spanish school

My daughter has now been at school for a fortnight. I wish I had more feedback on it, but trying to get information out of her is no easy task. So far she has done a fair amount of dancing to music and colouring in, has played a great deal, and has watched Peppa Pig twice. They eat their 11 o’clock snack sitting in the classroom before the break rather than during. The school day runs from 9am to 2pm with a half hour break. There isn’t any half-day option. When I was five, back in the UK, we had a break in the morning and the afternoon, as well as a lunch break. In comparison, the Spanish hours make for quite a long day at four years old (and a few kids in her class will still be three). I guess it explains the Peppa Pig, though I’d prefer some kind of free choice activity/play instead of television. We parents are supposed to send a pack of wipes, a spare outfit and 50 euros’ worth of books along with her for the year. The school provides the other supplies, and parents pay a 30 euro fee. The books are colourful workbooks, full of illustrations and stickers! Not like in my day…

 

curriculum for a four year old?

curriculum for a four year old?

As for my first week at school, ie my Spanish classes, I’m relieved to be finally doing something about my Spanish deficit. Having taught a fair amount of English, I know that being able to read and write a language doesn’t mean you can speak it. Although Spanish looks understandable to me on paper, I still struggle forming very basic accurate sentences in real life. So when I went to the A2 level Spanish class (beginner II) and found it fairly straightforward, I was not sure whether to ask to move up or not. The teacher told me to go ahead and try the class above, and I’m glad I did. The course will definitely be harder, but I’m willing to be stretched.

 

One major advantage is that the harder class is half the size, so that means twice as much practice in class. It seems at least half of the students doing the lower level don’t bother continuing to the intermediary stage. There is also less disparity in levels in my new class. In the A2 level, there were 20 students, of very varying abilities, even though many had been there the year before for A1. Interestingly, just over half were British, whereas in the B1 class I am the only Brit. There are a couple of North Africans, a couple of Iranians, a Frenchman, and a couple of Scandinavians. Of course, different ones have different strengths, especially those who are working and are therefore quite integrated and know a lot of vocab and expressions related to their jobs. The primary school vocab I’m learning isn’t that useful in other contexts. My only strength is my impatience – I should use that on some job interview question about my failings. Actually, the Instituto Cervantes, which devised the standardised DELE levels describes A1 as Breakthrough (acceso), A2 as Waystage (plataforma) and B1 as Threshold (umbral). I definitely don’t want to be on the plataforma any more, and I can’t wait to get past the umbral.

Check out their site if you want to try past exam papers and the like.


 

A few words from my week:

AMPA – parents’ and teachers’ association, pronounced “ampa”.

asistir – to attend

ausentarse, yo me ausenté – to be absent, I was away

la rutina diaria – the daily routine

ama de casa – housewife/homemaker/stay at home mum; careful - the Spanish say el ama, just like el agua and el aula (classroom) even though these nouns are feminine. That’s because they start with a stressed ‘a’. If it helps you to swallow this phrase, the ama is not from amar (to love) meaning someone who loves housework so much that it’s all they want to do in life, but actually from amo, owner.

soy perfeccionisto/a – I’m a perfectionist (somebody else said this, not me, believe it or not.)