‘Capitalize’ on language experiences in everyday life

Like the majority of adult language learners who are not learning in an immersion-style setting, my vocabulary is bound by the content of my college coursework. I have made it to the 400 level of Spanish and my ears, eyes, and writing hand are fairly comfortable in the language; however, my speaking makes me want to hide, waiting for the words to arrive by pony express. I have had few experiences outside of the classroom to use the language. That is not to say that I don’t have the desire, but as a working mother with a busy family I have not found the time.

Tonight in our translation course, we learned the Spanish equivalent of ‘capital letter’ when our professor realized most of us did not know the word. What a simple thing that I never learned how to express. Suddenly, it was no longer impressive that I can talk about Latin American literature or history in Spanish. I didn’t even know how to say ‘capital letter.’ This is something that all elementary school children know how to say. And what a word it is: mayúscula. It just rolls off the tongue. You can hear a native speaker say it here by clicking on the speaker next to the word. Nice, isn’t it?

When I returned home, simultaneously puffed with pride about my Translation mid-term grade and deflated by my ineptitude, I looked for some Spanish picture books passed along to my son by a friend. They were buried in the toddler-high mountain of books in the corner of our living room. As I turned the cardboard lift-the-flap style pages, I realized I have a gap larger than a mayúscula in my vocabulary. I didn’t know the words for kettle (la pava), windsurfer (el tablista), wheelbarrow (la carretilla), or it’s cousin the forklift (la carretilla elevadora). How can I ever master a language in which I can’t talk about boiling water or hauling stuff? Don’t even get me started about my inability to request una manguera (garden hose) for my flowers. What a useless bore I will be unless I start talking to people about everyday life. There is a limit to how much others are willing to talk about magical realism in a certain Colombian writer’s works.

I had planned to focus on my copy of Spanish for Health Care Professionals to practice medical terminology prior to volunteering at a local health fair in the Hispanic community, but my reading list has now grown. You may also see me lifting the flap and making the connection between la escalera (ladder) and la escalera mecánica (escalator). Don’t judge. I am learning how to explain the easy and the hard way to get to the 5th floor.

Learning Spanish from Harry Potter: A Vocabulary List

I am an unapologetic Harry Potter fan. I have read the entire series in English (several times). I have read books 1- 4 in French, and today I finished book 1 in Spanish. I have learned in my literature courses not to look up every single word that I don’t know, but I started reading this book part-time over a year ago. Since then, as I read a few pages here and there, I have jotted down in my Spanish journal a list of words I have learned from only one book of Harry Potter. Below are my favorites, and anyone learning Spanish can appreciate the usefulness of words such as pecoso (freckly), and destartalado (ramshackle). Most of these words would probably not come up in my courses, so I encourage you to read literature or young adult fiction to increase your fun vocabulary.  The fun part is working ‘mazmorra’ (dungeon) into everyday conversation. Enjoy!


Estirar las piernas: To stretch your legs

Cuchichear: To whisper

Susurrar: To whisper/mumble

Murmurar: To mumble

Tartamudear: To stammer; to mutter

Hallagar- To flatter

Mirar de reojo: To look out of the corner of one’s eye

Ahuyentar: To shoo; to chase away


Asombroso: Amazing

Descuidado: Careless

Destartalado: ramshackle

Flacucho: Skinny

Pecoso: Freckly

Bondadoso: Good-natured

Polvoriento: Dusty; Powdery

Saltón: Bulging (prominent), as in eyes or teeth

Hirviendo: Boiling

Jactanciosa: Boastful

Ceñudo: Grim; frowning


Las Lechuzas: Barn owls

Las Estrellas Fugaces: Shooting stars

El Torbellino: Whirlwind

La mazmorra: dungeon

El Ajenjo: Absinthe

La Varita: Wand

El Pergamino: Parchment; Scroll

Sobre el éxito (About success), excellent quote from Gabriel García Márquez

I like to utilize social media to practice Spanish. I have liked Gabriel García Márquez on Facebook, and frequently have excellent quotes in my news feed as a result. This week, my favorite quote is about success and I have included it below.
“No, el éxito no se lo deseo a nadie. Le sucede a uno lo que a los alpinistas, que se matan por llegar a la cumbre y cuando llegan, ¿qué hacen? Bajar, o tratar de bajar discretamente, con la mayor dignidad posible.”
“No, success is something I don’t wish on anybody. It’s like what happens to mountain climbers; they kill themselves to get to the top and when they get there, what do they do? Climb down, or try to do so, discreetly, with as much dignity as possible.”
—Gabriel García Márquez

What do Carlos Fuentes, Isabel Allende, Pablo Neruda and Mario Vargas Llosa have in common?

Their works are being read by yours truly in Spanish! This semester I am delving into the literature portion of my Spanish major and I am elated to be reading untranslated versions of some of the great Latin American writers. It occurred to me as I read some 18th century Latin American literature that I can now officially tackle reading nearly anything in Spanish. I wouldn’t pick up a scientific journal filled with medical research in that language, but I wouldn’t do that in my own native language of English either.

I have cracked the code. Since this is my second (okay, third if you count English) code to break, I can sense the walls surrounding a new set of cultures, literature, and communication disintegrating. Although I have been reading, writing, and communicating entirely in Spanish for a year now in my courses, it was not until I began reading selections from these authors in the past two weeks that I realized I have cracked the code. I read “Feast of the Goat” by Mario Vargas Llosa in English before visiting the Dominican Republic in 2006. Seven years later, I am preparing a presentation in Spanish on this work for my class. I couldn’t be happier to have decided to learn Spanish. It is not easy as a working mom, but with few artistic abilities and not many hobbies I can enjoy at the moment, this is my hobby.

I should include the disclaimer that this code-cracking does not mean I have achieved fluency. Verbal fluency requires much practice, and my class participation is not nearly enough to reach that goal. I am seeking ways to practice with friends old and new in order to improve my conversational Spanish. In the meantime, I can curl up with a book and begin to learn how Spanish speakers construct their worlds through fiction.

明天见! À demain! ¡Hasta mañana! See you tomorrow!

This afternoon I expressed “see you tomorrow” in four languages. I believe this is a sign of things to come, although I wonder if my brain can manage these linguistic transitions. Since I work at a university, I am in that week of limbo before classes start where the summer calm and time for projects is almost up, to be replaced by the hectic semesters of the academic year. In addition to working at the university, I am also undertaking a second bachelor’s degree in Spanish and I start two new courses next Monday.

In addition to the Spanish coursework, my new boss is encouraging me to have private Chinese instruction to go as far as I would like with Chinese, to be undertaken at work with one of our instructors. My original intent with the tutoring is to ensure I am able to be polite and carry on very basic introductions and instructions. Because I know myself, I have a feeling that I will start asking questions about grammar and culture, and then I will suddenly be hooked into going beyond learning traveling phrases. I have a problem saying “no” to anything to do with foreign languages.

And then there is my son, who is slowly starting to use French occasionally despite my best efforts to completely fail at sharing that language with him. I am elated that there is a new student working in an adjoining department who speaks French and Spanish and she is happy to use both with me for extra practice. Today I spoke with her in French and Spanish and I feel empowered to use both conversationally.

I have often complained that I don’t have the necessary resources here in Kentucky to speak multiple languages daily, and yet I have managed to work three extra languages into my daily life just like that. Now, I ask, can I do this? Is my adult brain supple enough? All I can do is try again tomorrow.

Ah, oui?

Enough. Enough. Enough. I have been way too hard on myself for not speaking French lately to my 21 month old, questioning whether to use my slowly evaporating French, or my newly stronger Spanish, and in the meantime, he is only getting English.

I just started speaking French again. Just like that. Right after putting away the dishes after dinner. I switched to French and I certainly got his attention. He laughed and laughed and laughed until he was turning red in the face. He brought me a French book not long after that, so he must know the difference even if I am not using it that much lately. He continued laughing throughout, and when I would mention the “petite souris” he would say “no, (giggle giggle giggle) MOUSE!!” My husband (non-French speaking) understood much of what I was saying and enjoyed expanding his own vocabulary as I taught them the exclamation dégueulasse when my son put his shoe in his mouth. At bedtime, I read him a French book as I typically do, but this time, he sat up, watched ME rather than the book and smiled as I read.

This is a reminder to keep it fun. I tend to worry so much about everything, and rather than worrying about too much, too little, not native, etc. I need to just share my love for language. He seems to enjoy it too.

My Spanish is taking a hit this summer as I am not enrolled in any Spanish courses, and I am not currently reading anything in Spanish or speaking it with anyone. I hope I can jump right on in this August when my classes start and I have Latin American Literature and Spanish Grammar through Literature. Perhaps I need to jump back into Spanish as well. Just like that. Right after putting my kid to sleep.

Let’s kick it up a notch.

This is week three of my fourth semester of Spanish, and I feel it is a good time to reflect upon when and where I started this third language.

Semester one (Spanish 101 and 102 as bi-terms packed into one semester): Spring of 2011 when I found out I was pregnant with A and most days I was just trying not to puke during class.

Semester two (Spanish 201 and 202 as bi-terms packed into one semester): Spring of 2012 after taking a semester off. A. was just a pup. I missed a couple of weeks when he was in the hospital, so it was like missing a month of a regular semester course.  I was not there when she taught the subjunctive tense. That is my excuse.

Summer 2012- no Spanish whatsoever

Semester three- (Spanish Conversation and Business Spanish, both conducted completely in Spanish): Fall 2012

And now, Spring of 2013, I am in Spanish Composition and Latin American Civilization and Culture.  Both of these courses are delivered entirely in Spanish.  I am still not sure how I do it. It doesn’t make any sense. I know this is not exactly Chinese, but I can’t help but wonder where I might be today if I had picked up on languages much earlier in life when my brain was more supple. French is still my go-to language when I am trying to say something complicated in Spanish, but for the most part I can now listen and understand without translating unconsciously in my head.  That is always a good indicator of progress.

This week I crossed into an entirely new level of comprehension: note taking. I have not taken notes by hand in a class for a very long time in English, so this is definitely a shock to the system.  Tuesday’s Latin American Civilization and Culture course included a whirlwind PowerPoint presentation and my enthusiastic professor’s rapid-fire lecture style.  For the first time, I took lecture notes in Spanish for an hour and a half, listening ahead as my hand tried to keep up. My first instinct was to translate into English for future reference, but I soon realized twenty words in that it simply would not do. In my defense, this would not have been such a big deal if we were not dealing with Mayan, Aztec and Inca place names and terminology mixed in with the Spanish explanations.  One can barely write out Tenochtitlán, Huitzilopochtli and Moctezuma II  before the professor is on to the next empire. She ended the class with a pop quiz including information given that day in class. Thank goodness I could listen, comprehend and write at the same time.

In addition to note taking, I am also composing essays for my composition course. I really love this course, and I have found that the exercise of selecting le mot juste (French phrase for ‘just the right word’) for essays ensures that I learn about 20 new words each night.

I am not sure how I might use this knowledge of Spanish in the future, but for now I am enjoying the process of cracking a new code.

Is he trying to tell me something? A focus on my lack of bilingual parenting confidence:

I have been absent from this blog. I have been ashamed. I have been doubtful. I have been lazy. I have felt conflicted.

It’s a new year, however, and while I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions, I do see this as a nice time to determine a new approach. I just spoke at length with a colleague who is raising her daughter to speak her native language, Mandarin.  Her daughter is now attending a preschool where English is the only language, and she is adapting to what both my colleague and I have experienced as culture shock, or even more specifically, language shock. The difference is that we both experienced this as adults and she is experiencing it at 3. The similarity is that her daughter is asking how to say practical things first, such as, “I need a tissue” because she has a runny nose, or “may I go in here?” She desperately wants to not feel shy to ask the other kids to play, but she is taking care of the other things first. I find this fascinating because any time I am immersed in a language with which I am unfamiliar, I also wonder how I will find the bathroom, take a cab, conduct transactions, etc. before I worry about knowing how to invite someone to dinner or ask about their family. Runny noses and bathroom breaks come first at any age, I suppose.

When our conversation concluded, I came back to my desk and mentally addressed what exactly is keeping me from going fully into French mode with my toddler 100% of the time.  I came up with the following:

  1. I seem to have internalized so many of the doubts people have about bilingual education rather than focusing on the benefits.  My confidence in the process is flagging.
  2. I have been so excited when A. says, “dog,” or “sock,” that I want to encourage him by saying in English, “yes, brilliant boy! That is a dog!” I want to use those English words in other English sentences to give him the confidence to continue using them. I am uncertain how to reward him for growing his English vocabulary and simultaneously reinforce the French.
  3. I can’t find French toddlers in my community. I just don’t think there are any. At some point, he needs peers to encourage him.
  4. I don’t have the support I need for maintaining and further developing my own French. I need French friends. See #3 above.
  5. Finally, I am immersed in Spanish classes throughout the semester, and that is what I am using all the time. I have friends with whom I can practice the language. There are plenty of Spanish speakers in the community; however, I am not comfortable enough yet with Spanish to feel I can confidently teach it to A. Spanish is not yet as instinctual as French, and yet I find French fading quickly for me. I wonder if I am going to miss my window for sharing the second language with him in the process of gaining my third language.

My approach is going to be using French as much as possible, but allowing myself to not feel the pressure of all or nothing.  Just last night, as A. was sluggishly trying to play while battling a fever, he was more cuddly than normal because he didn’t feel well. He kept bringing me a book that is in French called, “Pou-poule” about a chicken who runs away with a fox. He loves when I read this book (I like to use silly voices for the chickens talking). I realized that some of the books that he loves the most and wants to hear the most are the ones that are in French. Maybe I should stop worrying about how much and how often, and just live a bilingual (multilingual) life as a model. Hopefully he will grow up thinking this is normal, and I will have given him enough French (and maybe one day Spanish) to give him an edge if he decides to continue them. If, in the process, I begin using more French, so be it. It does have to be fun or neither of us will keep it up.

Tonight, as his father is out of town, it makes perfect sense to have an all French night and just see how it goes. If dogs and socks come into the conversation, they are welcome too!

Honoring friends in Spanish

It’s been a long while since I last wrote, but I assure you my Spanish studies have continued. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about my consistent French with my toddler. It is a constant struggle to balance English and French. Isn’t it almost time for New Year’s resolutions?

Later today, I will make a presentation in my Spanish conversation course. We were asked to give a presentation over an issue in a Latin American country. Since we have talked about environmental issues this semester, I decided to honor my friend Arturo with a presentation on his work with, and passion for, sea turtles.  Arturo spent years researching sea turtles in Costa Rica and St. Eustacia, and I have learned enough over the years from him to give a decent introduction of the topic and the urgency of the problem.

I have always considered Arturo as somewhat of a hero for his dedication to his work, and for following his passion and turning it into a career.  Today, it is even more special because I can honor him in my third language. Just like my experience this year at the radio station, I can’t believe I can actually present something interesting in Spanish.  It is so rewarding, and when I can use it to brag on an old friend, it becomes a great milestone.

Now, about that French…what am I going to do? Anyone using a non-native language with their child have recommendations for how to not slip into your native language? Maybe a small shock collar tuned to English?

Use it or lose it (the motivation)!

I’m currently in Philadelphia for a language conference for work, and more specifically, I am sitting in a restaurant alone missing my husband and baby.

My distraction is to think about the past few days. Two days ago, I interviewed a local woman who is originally from Colombia for my Spanish class. She showed up 30 minutes early, and my language partner for the interview was on time. I held a conversation completely in Spanish for over an hour, and it felt fairly natural. It was exhilarating to use that much Spanish with someone other than one of my professors. I also learned a lot about Colombia. Yes, there is more than drug cartels there!

Just this afternoon, as I was walking though the world’s largest convention center searching for the conference check-in, I started walking next to a woman who is a local French teacher from Canada originally. We spoke for about 20 minutes, and I was so embarrassed because I was doing alright, but kept saying “si,” instead of “oui.”

I explained I am studying Spanish and she said her husband is Spanish and that they always end up speaking a combination of French and Spanish at home because the two are so close and they both speak both languages.

We said “Bonne Journée,” when she found her meeting room, and then I asked someone else for directions. The older gentleman did not speak great English, so I asked him if he spoke Spanish because his accent gave him away. He said yes, and then I proceeded to ask for directions in Spanish.

Now, I know people in larger cities may get this opportunity all the time, but it was, well, exhilarating. I need a new adjective I suppose.

Each of these three people changed their demeanor completely when I addressed them in their native language, and I learned something from each person. This is why I love learning new languages!

There’s that motivation I was looking for!


Bonne nuit!

Tonight I had one of the best moments of my life, and it was such a simple one. I was in the middle of the bedtime routine with A. and I had read him a couple of stories.  I tipped him back in my arms and continued rocking him, his face looking up at mine. I very softly told him (in French) the story of me learning that I was pregnant, how his daddy and I waited so long for him to arrive, and then how I fell in love with him instantly.  Then I told him about what I hoped for him in the future, and what I promise to him as his mother. I rocked and talked for about 30 minutes.

Realizing that he had spent the entire time calmly looking into my eyes, listening, sleepy but engaged, I was overwhelmed with love. I took note of his size, thinking about the story I just told about how small he had been. He still fits in my lap, and my open palm can cover the length of his little pudgy elbow and forearm as he rests in the crook of my elbow.  I know this will not be so forever, and as a wriggly toddler I don’t get these quiet and still moments with him very often.

As his sweet eyes began to get heavy, I laid him down in his crib, and for the first time in a few months, he didn’t cry at all when I laid him down and walked out of the room. The stars aligned tonight, and I will never forget our moment.

Bonne nuit, mon petit lapin. Fais de beaux rêves! (Goodnight my little rabbit. Sweet dreams)

Adding fuel to the fire

Spoiler alert: I get on my soapbox in this post.

I had a conversation this past week with someone who plans to raise their child as a bilingual English/Spanish speaker, and this person is not a native speaker of Spanish. Unfortunately, this person has run into one of those naysayers who does not believe this is possible.  The naysayer gave the impression that this is a silly thing that people who are not yet parents dream to accomplish, but never do so.

To this naysayer, whom I am sure would NEVER find my multilingual parenting blog, watch me!  I say this not for the sake of this person, I say this for anyone who is uncertain if this can be done. This may include prospective parents, or parents who are considering this avenue for their family. Don’t let anyone else dictate what you and/or your family members are capable of doing. I have known for years, before I even met my husband and became a mother, that I want to share French with my offspring.  So I am, and I will.  To have the last laugh, I might just toss in Spanish as well.

It is rare to find a bilingual or multilingual person who has no accent in any of their languages, or for whom switching between languages in every context is a breeze. Regardless of how you define bilingualism (and there are a few definitions out there), hang your hat on the one that you can personally live with, and just enjoy sharing the language with your children. Who cares if they are going to be perfect speakers?

Yes, sharing the language can present challenges for a family, especially if you are a non-native speaker living in a country where the target language is not a majority language, but it is also a lot of fun.  If you, like me, enjoy more than one language, and more than one culture, then the work is rewarding. This endeavor allows the non-native speaker to keep his or her own language skills sharp. By modeling the learning process, the parent will teach their children skills about learning that can be valuable in other subject areas.  I fully expect A. to think everyone’s parents do foreign language grammar exercises in the evenings, or listen to Spanish/French radio news.  Curiosity is a value in our home, and intercultural communication will be an emphasis.

If you are curious, if you are dubious, just keep reading.  I hope to give you a reason to believe there is value in this process.

On the air

Today I did something I never would have imagined two years ago. I recorded a future radio broadcast in Spanish with two classmates on the topic of soccer (fútbol).  This nine minute segment will be included in one of the upcoming Spanish language radio programs, airing every Sunday afternoon.  We did it in one take. I was nervous, and I know my Spanish was not perfect, but the smile on the producer’s face when we finished made my day.

Teachers, take heed: this was a very fun and rewarding experience for a conversational Spanish course!  The exercise required group work, practice perfecting pronunciation, and bridges the gap between campus and the local Hispanic community.

Now that the kiddo is in bed, this multilingual mama is going to wrap up her Spanish blog entry, study for tomorrow’s exam, and then curl up with her French language version of Anna Karenina. Just to see if 1) my brain can handle the switch, and 2) I can stay awake for more than 2 pages.

Es muy interesante. ¡No! ¡Es fascinante!

One of my colleagues spends her workday assisting students with their writing.  She posted the following picture on her site a few days ago.  As a wanna-be writer, I must remember the message, but as an aspiring tri-lingual, it is a not-so-friendly reminder that I have a long way to go before I am a good writer in another language.  Selecting just the right word is probably a task for those who are in the advanced level of proficiency. For now, I am happy when I correctly use the imperfect tense and can distinguish the difference between “I like myself a lot” and “me, I like it a lot,” which in Spanish is the difference between “me gusto,” and “me gusta.”

This week I have been seeking out opportunities to use Spanish. I had an efficient conversation today with my server at a Mexican restaurant. He greeted me in English, I answered in Spanish, and then he just switched over to Spanish, speaking to me naturally, and just like that it was no big deal. In the past, when I have attempted to speak with servers as a novice speaker, they slowed down their speech and spoke to me in the fragmented Spanish usually reserved for children. This time, I knew what I needed to say, I asked some questions, gave a compliment, and we completed the transaction of food and money. It was exciting to have someone converse with me in another language without my face flushing from embarrassment.

In China, my experience has been that if I use any Chinese words correctly beyond “Ni Hao,” I am met with accolades typically reserved for those who summit Mount Everest. Although times are changing, the number of mei guo rens (Americans) who can speak Chinese is still fairly low. The down side of this enthusiastic support is that we are infrequently corrected when we use the wrong tone.  I become self-conscious because I assume that I am butchering their language while they politely nod.

The opposite is true in France. God love ’em, they are proud of their language, and quite rightfully so.  Not that the Chinese are not proud of their language, but the French have no qualms about helpfully pointing out any errors of pronunciation or grammar. Some say this is because they themselves were relegated to hours of drills to speak French correctly.  Why can’t we endure a few moments of repetition? When I speak in French with a French person whom I don’t know very well, I am aware that their ears are bleeding because I am butchering their language (okay, maybe not butchering, but not perfect) and I become self-conscious.

I know that many Americans speak Spanish as their second language, and perhaps that is why my conversation today was void of insecurity and bleeding.  If that is how it is going to be, I like my relationship with Spanish already. In fact, I think that it will be VERY enjoyable indeed!

My brain is full. Can I go home?

In the language cone described last week, I am currently a dollop of ice cream dribbling off the bottom onto your shoe. My cumulative sleep deprivation has me unable to communicate in any language. I find myself mute mid-sentence, as my brain slides from one language to the next, searching for the right words to express myself.

I am not sure if this means that by knowing some languages fairly well,  I am taking the luxury of finding the best option, or if I am just terrible at all of the languages.  For those of you who speak more than one language, you know those moments when you learn a word or phrase (I nearly typed una palabra or phrase–good example of my mixing languages) that captures a feeling or thought better than anything you know in your native language? That is probably one of the most rewarding aspects of learning another language-learning new ways to express the same ‘ole thoughts, new ways of approaching the world, situations, and communication in general.

Input, input, input. This is how I need to solve my problem. I listen to French internet news radio at work. I listen to CNN en Español on Satellite radio in my car. I am reading Anna Karenina in French, and I am in Spanish courses 4 days/week. I speak to A. in French. I am working my way through a Spanish grammar text for practice.  I have chosen for this to be my spare time hobby for at least the next year. A hobby that will hopefully, one day, provide me with interesting career options! Next semester I plan to take Spanish grammar and composition, so hopefully this will help me tremendously!

Filling the cone

In language learning, there are various images that capture the experience of moving from novice to advanced/superior.  Some people like to look at it as a cone.

At the bottom of the cone, when you are getting started, you can fill up the bottom 1/4 fairly quickly.  If you add just a little bit of language, you will see big leaps forward.  Suddenly, you know the word for cat (el gato), and house (la casa), and a whole host of vocabulary that you can use to label everything in your home.  Suddenly, you can introduce yourself, tell someone where you are from, and maybe even order a beer. Compared to how much of the language you knew before you started filling your cone, there is a sense of satisfaction. Especially if you can say “quiero una cerveza grande,” and it arrives pronto.

Now that the bottom 1/4 of the cone is full, the difference between the bottom of the next 1/4 to the top of that 1/4 (Intermediate in visual above), is not that much. It also takes much more language learning to fill that part of the cone.  As you move up the cone, the change is gradual, and requires more and more knowledge and experience to fill a section.  Notice the Superior level is open because this is a continual effort that one must make to remain a superior speaker of a language.  The kicker is that Superior does not equal native speaker.  Not all native speakers are at the superior level in their own language.

I am currently in the Intermediate section of the cone in Spanish, attempting to be solidly in the Advanced section by the end of this academic year.  This will take work and patience. I have to remind myself all the time that this is where it gets tough, this is where many people give up because the progress is too slow to feel good. Instead of celebrating the fact that I can follow a lecture in Spanish on the subject of the farming industry in Uruguay, I am frustrated that I can’t explain in Spanish what effects the birth rate, unemployment rate, and immigration rate have on the Spanish economy when I am asked to do so in class.  It’s very hard to move from the labeling and basic conversation stage into expressing abstract ideas or presenting an argument about an issue.


Il faut pratiquer! (You have to practice)

When the child goes down for a nap on Labor Day, this momma cheers and runs for the book of French grammar exercises. Yes, that is what I do in my spare time. Heaven forbid I teach him poor grammar!  Then I will finish my Spanish homework, and call it a day.

The goal for A.’s birthday is to decorate his room in our new home. For now, he has beige walls and beige carpet. Bo-ring! I have two ideas I am working with.  One is green, and the other is gray and white horizontal stripes, with colorful things hung on the walls.  I love Etsy.com, and I have found some great French posters, etc. for decorations.  This will be so much fun!  Eventually, I would like to see if his father and grandfather can build some cubbies for his room for books/toys. I refuse to give hundreds of dollars to Pottery Barn for what is so easy to make!

Finally, I know it is early, but I have found a French Christmas CD for kids. I need to learn all the French Christmas songs I can so that we can start singing them every year as a tradition. This will be a birthday gift for A. since he will be more enthralled with the boxes than the gifts this year!

Oh, how I love a three-day weekend!

My other blog is a doozy!

As if writing for one blog were not enough, I have been assigned the task of keeping a blog in Spanish for my Business Spanish course.  Each of us has been assigned a Spanish-speaking country for which we will be the class “expert,” as we discuss the economics, cultures, and world events in Spain and Latin America. My country for the semester is Equatorial Guinea, where one of the official languages is Spanish.  I like this choice because it is the only option in Africa.  The challenge is that until the President’s son, the Vice-President, was accused of improper use of government funds, shall we say, there is not a lot of news being piped out of that country.

I reached a few conversational milestones in class today. I successfully explained the concept of GDP in Spanish, and also had to explain why the U.S. government sees Chinese as a critical language, and moreover, what does critical language mean? I was by no means perfect in my communication, I am sure, but I was understood and it sparked discussion. Both of my courses are very much discussion-based, and participatory.  Both courses have us discussing matters that are abstract, as well as discussing current events. I feel as if I am already feeling better about my speaking after a week. I can’t wait to see where I am at the end of this semester!

¡Entiendo! (I understand)

Today was the first day of my Spanish Conversation course. My instructor is originally from Ecuador, and speaks fairly quickly.  In the first five minutes I felt, well, squinty. You know that face that you have probably made at some point when listening to someone with an accent, or when you are trying to understand someone in another language. I hope my nose was not wrinkled too. My listening face is not that great in a second language.

After those first few minutes, I relaxed my face, took a deep breath, and just listened.  I realized that without translating in my head, I just listened to what she was saying, and I understood. I really understood!  If only my speaking were as good as my listening, but that is the purpose of this course, no? I am glad this coming weekend is a long weekend. I hope to get in some good reviewing so I don’t feel so uncomfortable that I go mute in this conversation course.

It has only been in the last few years that I gave up my need to be perfect in a language before opening my mouth to use it. Since then, contrary to what I originally thought, I improve in any language by confidently making mistakes.  Even blogging makes me focus on my native language.  After studying and/or using other languages, I think it has somewhat wrecked my English instinct. I write awkward sentences consistently. My hope is that by blogging, my English will also improve because the perfectionist in me re-edits constantly. I just re-wrote the previous sentence several times, and I know I still missed some grammar points.

Tomorrow is Business Spanish, and I hope to make plenty of mistakes in that course as well!

Word of the day: estereotipos, n. – Stereotypes.  That one should be easy to remember and slightly more useful than the “mocos” of my previous entry.

Only three languages? Slacker.

I have had a stroke of luck, and now I will be able to take two Spanish courses: Spanish Conversation and Business Spanish. I had planned to take two classes this semester because the tuition benefit is lost if I don’t use it. Rather than have 4 languages in my head every day, I am narrowing it down to three. I still think I will end up being one of those people who mumbles to themselves as they walk through campus, having one-sided conversations for practice.
Yesterday, my father-in-law greeted us with a French phrase he had memorized from a translation just for our son. It was such a sweet gesture. I still feel a little strange speaking French with our son in front of our non-French speaking families. I don’t want to be rude, having a private conversation that nobody else can understand or enjoy. At the same time, if I accommodate every English speaker around us, I will never be using the target language. I guess I have to get over it, and feel silly in the grocery store, or with family. It’s been a while since I was living as a foreigner, and I suspect that in public those without a refined ear will think I am “not from around these parts.”
A. started crawling last weekend and is already cruising. At this rate, he will be walking before I know it, and speaking sweet words of…English? French? Kentuckian?


Snot by any other name is still snot.

My French vocabulary is expanding in ways I had never imagined as I speak French with my kiddo.  Last night, as I watched him practice crawling and performing various yoga moves I will never be able to emulate, I hit a roadblock in my conversation. I said, in French, “Let’s go wipe the…the…how do you say it in English? Snot?…off your face.”

Feeling like a sixth grader looking up bad words in the dictionary (I am sure they just Google it on their smartphones now), I had to look up snot. I don’t have the large desk-sized version of the Robert dictionary you French majors may have lugged around. I don’t even have the Petit Robert.  I have a small highly abridged version. I didn’t expect to find it, but there it was. In fact, not only did it tell me how to say snot (morve, f.), but it told me how to say “snotty adj. (as in children)- morveaux.”

I looked up snot in my Spanish dictionary next. Technology is great for quick answers, but I still love my dictionaries. It’s “mocos” in Spanish. As I contemplated the various ways I can sneak this into my Spanish Conversation course this Fall, I realized that the only Swedish word I remember from my friendship with some Swedish exchange students years ago is “slem,” or, snot. We were walking through arctic conditions on the UK campus, and the topic came up as the substance was forming ice on our faces.  Okay, it felt arctic to me. I am sure they thought it felt like home.

The point of all this is that until you know how to say random and seldom-taught vocabulary words such as snot, raccoon and spark plug in your target language, you have a lot of dictionary/smartphone time in your future. May all of them be as fun as snot, er, morve. I just hope you don’t need to know because someone is waiting for you to wipe it from their face.

I put that spark back in his eyes!

The day I learned I was pregnant, I decided to give my son the gift of a second language from birth.  Little did I know how difficult that would be for a non-native speaker of French.

I started out earnestly enough, trying to use both English and French.  I read at least one book in English and one in French to him every day. I would sing along with French nursery rhyme CDs. I split my time speaking both languages with him.  About a month ago I made the decision to go OPOL.  For those of you not in bilingual parenting circles, that is one parent, one language.  In our case, my husband would speak to him only in English, and I would speak to him only in French.  And we kept it up. For about a week or two. Then my native English would creep in because I was in a hurry, or tired, or we were around family that didn’t speak French, or any other host of excuses that are eerily similar to my reasons for not running again yet post-pregnancy. It turns out that I am lazy. Or busy. Or both. Either way, OPOL has not been happening.  He still gets the books and the songs, but the consistent, French only from mommy has been hit and miss.

I set my next goal that when we got back from California this week, I would restart, but for real this time.  It is difficult. French is no longer the knee-jerk language that it was at one time in my life. I have to start incorporating it into my life again through movies, online news, music, books, etc. I have to somehow conceptualize that my son=French. I need to imagine that he only speaks French.  I understand this approach will only work as long as he is not speaking English.  By that time, I hope to have created a habit.

Another challenge in our home is regarding family communication. My husband is a monolingual with a strong willingness to learn French and/or Spanish.  I have read plenty of research that shows this is not a problem. I have read anecdotes on many websites where families have shared their experiences in just this type of situation, and they all seem cheery and well-adjusted.  We are our own unique unit, however, and we have to figure out how to navigate this communication in our household so that nobody feels left out.  We can be encouraged by research, but we are individuals, and can’t assume that what works for some will work for us. It will be a learning and growing experience along the way, and I am happy to share that in this blog if anyone is considering this path for their own child.

Finally, the challenge that I encounter in seamless conversation with my baby is my lack of baby-related French vocabulary. My French classes in high school and college assumed that this was not needed right away, and I never needed that vocabulary later in life with any of my French friends. I realized a month ago during the failed OPOL decree that I had no idea how to say diaper, wipes, pacifier, teddy bear, baby bottle, breastfeeding, crawling, or spitting up. Some of those are easier than others to mime in polite company, and I knew that if I am to teach my son French rather than sign language, I needed to learn these phrases tout de suite (right away)!

Now, to the present: I have been speaking only French to my son since Monday, but no celebrations just yet-my husband has been out of town since Monday and returns tonight. My inspiration to keep up OPOL is that the moment I switched to French only with my son, his eyes lit up in a very different way, almost as if to say, “there’s that French!”  For those of you who know his smile that lights up a room, you already know the magical powers this child has. Since Monday, there has been an extra sparkle, and I would like to think my French put that spark there!

Word of the day: couche de bébé= diaper

Allende or else.

I am a student of Spanish, but only in the sense that I am taking a course while working full-time. I have many other parts of my life demanding my time, including a 10 month old baby and a very dear husband, so time to read for pleasure is limited.  My usual stack of bedside reading is noticeably similar to the stack present 10 months ago, with one new addition; I bought a copy of Isabel Allende’s book, La Ciudad de las Bestias, a book for juveniles, at Powell’s bookstore in May. I am on page 21.

I have learned over the years with my study of French that it is not advisable (or fun) to look up every other word in a text.  Authentic material is important for language learning, but if I am looking up too many words, perhaps I should kick it down a notch to very young juvenile literature and build my vocabulary and knowledge of verb conjugations before charging into full-length novels. It is slow going mostly because I have so little free time to read anything in any language, but also I attribute my snail’s pace to my desire to stretch beyond my current proficiency level. At my current rate, I will finish this book just before my baby starts kindergarten.

This is my first blog post, and as I type these parting thoughts, I look at the time (12:30 a.m.) and lament that I could have been reviewing the subjunctive and conditional tenses this evening rather than starting this blog. Or sleeping.