Trying to master a foreign language

Archive for the category “Spanish”

Cine: Un Cuento Chino

Paris is a great place to live if you like foreign movies. And by foreign, I don’t mean American blockbusters (which, in France, are foreign films too). What I mean is it’s a great place to live if you like movies from everywhere else in the world. The latest Argentinian comedy-drama, Un cuento chino, is playing everywhere, in Spanish, with French subtitles.

Un cuento chino (released in France as El Chino) is the opposite of a blockbuster. The only action is in the opening scene, which features a cow falling from the sky. The premise is as follows: reclusive, and misanthropic hardware store owner gets saddled with a young Chinese immigrant who is lost and does not speak a word of Spanish. The helpless young man eventually forces him out of his shell and makes him confront the traumatic events of his youth, also those of the country as a whole.


Taking the leap: interpreting from Spanish

I’m now back from Argentina and officially working from Spanish. According to standard conference interpretation terminology, Spanish for me is a C language, i.e. a language, which, for professional purposes, is passive, a language you work from, not into. I have never had a C language before. My other two languages (English and French) are both active, both A (i.e. native) languages.

The upshot is that for the first time in my life, I do not have full intuitive command of the message. because I have to devote more energy to listening, I have less energy to devote to analysing and re-expressing the message. Like a colleague who discussed her experience of adding Swedish C in 2002 (see Déjean Le Féal, Karla. 2002. “La “théorie du sens” au banc d’essai.” in Israël), I find myself struggling to avoid word-for-word translations. From Spanish, I also retain less information in short-term memory.

For the time being, I have nothing but questions. How can I gear meeting preparation to the problems of working from C? What is the link between activation and understanding, and what language enhancement activities should get priority? Where can I find data on C language acquisition and development?

A lot of work in store!….

Vos o tú

Like French and English, Spanish is a global language, with over 400 million native speakers in 70 different countries (my stats are courtesy of wikipedia). Spanish therefore comes in many different. flavors.

Here, in Argentina, where I am traveling to attend a conference, people use ‘vos’ instead of ‘tú’ as the second person singular pronoun.

This is not what I learned as a student of Spanish, first, briefly, in highschool, and later, much more extensively, in France, as an adult. I learned Spanish mainly from Spaniards. Spaniards don’t necessarily agree among themselves as to what constitutes proper Spanish. Speakers from Asturias don’t sound anything like speakers from, say Estremadura or Andalucia. But Spaniards all agree that the second person singular pronoun is ‘tú’. No one had ever bothered to tell me about ‘vos’.

Yet ‘vos’ is no minor local quirk. It is used in what is refered to as Rioplatense Spanish, in other words, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, and to a lesser extent in many other countries, ranging from Chile to Central America to bits of Colombia and Venezuela. That’s a lot of people. more than the total population of Spain.

To at least to try to use ‘vos’ instead of ‘tú’, while I’m here, is, of course, irresistible–at the risk of sounding even more confused than I aleady am. So what if I get it wrong? I am a foreigner–a ‘forastera’. I’m allowed to be confused. So in I dive, asking the taxi driver “tenés el cambio?” instead of ‘tienes’ (more later on the topic of asking for change in this country–that’s an entry all to itself).

More on vos or voseo:


In a foreign language, social awkwardness is multiplied one hundred fold. If you’re slightly shy and a bit awkward in your own language, then in the new language it’s the same, only worse. The only difference is you have no hope of truly connecting, so you don’t even try. Instead of a full-fledged personality, you settle for a persona. You’re “the foreigner”.

Being the foreigner is not a bad deal. Au contraire, It makes you special. If you avoid other expats, If you wait patiently, inevitably someone will adopt you, take you home, and show you off to their friends.

You will meet interesting people. You won’t “get” them. You can never know what they know, or understand their experience, but, as your communication skills improve, you can get a glimpse–more than a glimpse–of a different reality. For a moment, you forget yourself, and when you come back to yourself, you find that you have grown.


This blog is about my life in Spanish. I am not a native Spanish speaker. Spanish is a language I learned late in life, after my mother died. That was 10 years ago. She was 62–far too young. I was 38, and I suddenly realized that I was not going to live forever, and that whatever I wanted to do, I had better do now. There were two things I had always wanted to do: learn Spanish and play the cello.

This blog is mainly about Spanish, which I will never speak as well as I speak my native languages, French and English. In Spanish, I will always be something of an impostor. I will never really understand it or truly know it from the inside. It will never trip off my tongue effortlessly.

Learning a language is a hopeless, futile quest, but all the better. As Cyrano de Bergerac (an impostor himself) would have it, “c’est bien plus beau lorsque c’est inutile.” I know, I know, that’s French. A reference to Quijote would undoubtedly be more appropriate. Desafortunadamente (my favorite word in Spanish–impossible not to get it wrong), I have yet to read that great classic: another item on my seemingly endless list of “Things To Do in Spanish”.

In the process of discussing Spanish, I may also touch on other topics that matter to me: work, music (I did learn the cello, by the way), books, relationships, exercise, cooking, children, friends, family–what are blogs for if not to share all sorts of personal details with the universe–is someone out there?

Dear Reader, should you turn out to exist, your input and comments are highly valued and eagerly awaited.

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