‘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.