Friday, October 23, 2009

Will I ever learn Spanish?

We’ve all read the studies: learning something new helps ward off Alzheimer’s. So both as an anti –Alzheimer’s measure and because I would like to actually speak another language before I check out, I am trying to learn Spanish.

Why Spanish? I don’t think I have enough brain cells left to start from scratch. That leaves only 3 languages for this to be a realistic goal: Spanish, French or italian.

Much as I love traveling to France and Italy and hope to get back there someday, Spanish is a much more useful language for a traveler: there’s Spain and all of Latin America. The one upside to the drop of the dollar is that my husband and I started traveling in Latin America. So Spanish it is!

I didn’t want to take a formal class. I think I know enough of the grammar and just need to practice conversational Spanish, so along with some of the other retired folks in my neighborhood, we’ve pulled together a conversation group. I really like the people in the group. It’s a lot of fun but we’re not as focused on Spanish as we probably should be and the social dimension takes over. If we get really interested in a conversation, those of us who are less proficient (that includes me) tend to break into English. But the group has reactivated that long dormant part of my brain that has stored some knowledge of Spanish and inspired me to do a little (very little) reading.

Years ago (sometime in the early 70’s), I fell in love with One Hundred Years of Solitude. I re-read it when I included it in one of my literature courses at Community College of Phila. and found it just as magical as the first time—yes, there’s a reason critics called it magic realism. I did everything possible to try to get my students to love it as well, but I doubt if any of them read much of the book. I developed elaborate discussion questions to help them get through it, but it became apparent that my discussion questions were functioning as Cliff’s notes, a substitute for the book.

So I gave up on teaching it, but now that I am retired I decided I have the time to tackle it in Spanish. It is really hard. I read at most 2 pages every other day. At this rate it will take me about two years to finish, but that's okay. The good news is that I still love the book! I’ve been having some disappointing experiences reading once beloved books, but One Hundred Years of Solitude stands up to the memories.

Is it helping me with Spanish? To some extent, but I am probably getting more out of this as literary experience than as a language learning tool.

My other strategy has been to rent Spanish language films. Thanks to Netflix, with its great selection of foreign language films, there is an in inexhaustible supply. The problem is, if I get into a film, I forget all about paying attention to the Spanish and just read the subtitles. I think the films have helped a little in accustoming my ear to the sound of the language and I have discovered some great directors—e.g. Argentine Daniel Burman. His beat is the Argentine Jewish community. He’s a kind of Argentine Woody Allen but with much more subtlety and much less pretension.

I’m trying to make learning Spanish as painless as possible. But it may be true--no pain, no gain. Anybody else out there trying to learn a foreign language?

By the way, I just learned the Spanish word for retirement--jubilacion. Retirees are jubilados. Much better than retirees!


  1. That is a great book, if you are interested in speaking proper spanish, believe it or not the televise Spanish Novelas are really helpful. In Philadelphia the Hispanic Social events draw Hispanics whom speaks proper spanish. Francesca

  2. Frsncesca, thanks for suggestions!