Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Trying to Learn Spanish

Trying to learn Spanish, like trying to learn any language, is so difficult, but there are bright moments where the clouds clear and you think, as cliche as it sounds this process can be so rewarding. New languages produce new thoughts and ideas, and it is all so awakening. But Spanish is particularly beautiful (in my biased mind). Even when you do not comprehend the words, the language is so fluid, so melodious, so thick with feeling. For example, in the Pablo Neruda book of poems that Nick gave me for my birthday last year, the translator advises the reader, "Even if you do not speak Spanish, I urge you to read the original poems. The words have notes, they resonate like a song. Our translations can never aspire to exactly replicate the rhythms and colors of Neruda's words..."

And it is true. Take for instance the following stanza from Neruda's poem, "Unidad":

Me rodea una misma casa, un solo movimiento:
el peso del mineral, la luz de la miel,
se pegan al sonido de la palabra noche:
la tinta del trigo, del marfil, del llanto,
envejecidas, destenidas, uniformas;
se unen en torno a mi como paredes.

These words in English can be translated to mean the following:

Just one thing surrounds me, a single motion:
the weight of rocks, the light of honey,
fasten themselves to the sound of the word night:
the tones of wheat, ivory, of tears,
aging, fading, blurring,
come together around me like a wall.

The meaning is beautiful in a simple, universally understood way: nightfall brings the unity of everything so that all the colors of our day fade into one wall of darkness. It is hard to appreciate the beauty of a poem without first understanding its meaning. But once you understand the meaning of these words, and you read it again in Spanish, as the translator says, the melody and harmony of the original Spanish syllables will sing more than the translation ever could. And it is the realization of this kind of unique harmony that pushes me on to find out what all of these beautiful words actually mean.

After three months of living in Argentina, I am embarassed to say that I am still very much a beginner when it comes to the Spanish language. (Some may even say pre-beginner...) Not to make excuses, but teaching English for a living makes learning Spanish a bit difficult. Difficult, yes, but impossible, no--something I must keep reminding myself.

Little-by-little, poco a poco, I notice small feats, which give me hope and encouragement. From daily interactions, things such as directions, food, and monetary transactions are becoming much easier. I get so excited when someone on the street asks me for directions and I can respond without thinking (too much). It is just that when it comes to emotions, ideas, and feelings, I stumble, fumble, and panic. After two months of teaching, I feel very close to many of my students, but because many of them are just beginning to learn English, there are many obstacles in our ability to clearly communicate. I am dying to ask them how they feel about lessons, how they learn, which methods of learning they prefer, but I lack the language skills to properly do so...

But despite the obstacles, the small feats, such as providing directions correctly in Spanish, give me just the positive umph I need to keep on going. Plus, I have my secret weapon: Nick! He really amazes me everyday in that he never stops focusing, never stops paying attention to all the new words swirling around us. He reads all the store-front window signs, listens to the conversations going on around us, buys newspapers in Spanish, and never hesitates to ask anyone a question regarding Spanish. He is a sponge when it comes to the Spanish language, and I really am so impressed everyday. He is a great motivator to me, and really helps me learn along the way. Together we have made some language goals to help us in our Spanish pursuit. At night this week, we have been turning on the news in Spanish, and we have also resolved to use some of our free time in the evenings to learning new verbs. We have been researching undergraduate classes at universities in Buenos Aires so that we can audit a class, something that will hold us accountable to keeping up in Spanish, something that will force us to learn more words than we would ever voluntarily learn in our free time. And in the meantime, we are reading The Little Prince in Spanish--El Principito. One of the sweetest books in any language, it is so much fun to re-read this book, to re-discover it with different words. Also, who can deny that once again, Spanish comes through with its uniqueness, as what could be a cuter word for little prince than principito?


mgmax said...

Hi Sam and Nick
Good points here. I love Neruda, but my Spanish has never been up to snuff enough for me to read his work in his native tongue. However, that is obviously the way to go.
There are times when writing in a certain language is the only way to get it done. Samuel Beckett moved from Ireland to France and did much of his writing in French...no surprise, as he was heavily involved in the French Resistance during World War II and was a seminal voice in the rise of Existentialism. Also Ernest Hemingway wrote The Old man and the Sea in Spanish and he was awarded either the Pulitzer or the Nobel prize for that. Keep blogging, I will follow! Mike

Michelle said...

Hi Guys,
I love reading about your adventures. You can't find a better book than "The Little Prince". I read it in French. That book can be read on so many levels. What a great adventure in life. I think I need to go back and read it again. Thanks for the reminder.
Aunt Shell

Mama Africa said...

This entry makes me drool over the Spanish language.

I understand your point about teaching English as a barrier to learning Spanish, but it really sounds like you're picking up more than you realize about the flow and beauty of the language.

I love you!
Laura Epps