Trying to master a foreign language

Number crunching

These days, I live by numbers and trends: cifras, sendas de crecimiento, bajas, subidas, balances, incertidumbres, previsiones y estadísticas.

After a string of rather technical meetings at OECD, involving interpreting from Spanish to English, I have discovered another angle for improving my skills. Every day, I listen to a presentation that involves figures.

These days, my closest companion, the one I commune with every day, is the billion, which, in Spanish, is the far more cumbersome mil millones. For someone as arithmetically challenged as me, converting 10,000 millones into 10 billion in the heat of the interpreting moment requires considerable effort. So I practice.

The following link is full of figures, and it’s also quite interesting. It is my small contribution to the circulation of economic ideas in Spanish:


Antonio Muñoz Molina

Every day, I look for speeches in Spanish online so I can practice understanding and interpreting. I have started to listen for accents. What does someone from La Havana sound like, compared to, say, someone from Buenos Aires, or, in the case of Antonio Muñoz Molina, from Úbeda?


A couple weeks ago, I found this interview of Antonio Muñoz Molina on YouTube. I first learned about Antonio Muñoz Molina last summer. I was looking for seminars that I could attend in Spain. One looked especially promising. it was in Santander and it was called “Antonio Muñoz Molina: Itinerario de un aprendizaje”. A Spanish author was going to tell us all about the people and experiences that had influenced his writing.

I knew nothing about Muñoz Molina, so I looked him up. I also looked up the books on the reading list. It was a long list, but, fortunately, many were classics that I had read years ago, like the Aspern Papers by Henry James, or Absalom, Absalom by Faulkner. There were also many books by the author himself. I knew I could never get through them all (I read slowly in Spanish), so I picked three. El Robinson Urbano and Beltenebros, because they were short, and Ventanas de Manhattan, because the guy at the bookstore in Santander personally recommended it, and also because I thought it would be interesting to read about a foreigner discovering a city I knew fairly well, in a foreign language, that I myself was discovering. That seemed to be the right mix of familiarity and strangeness.

A few weeks ago, I came upon the above link. Back in Santander, six months ago, I could understand what people were saying, more or less, provided they didn’t talk too fast or all at once. Spaniards are what Deborah Tannen calls high-involvement speakers. Nobody wants to wait for the previous speaker to be finished before jumping in. It makes for animated conversation, but it’s an added difficulty if you are still struggling to understand. I don’t find it particularly disturbing that people would want to talk all at once–French people do it too. I suspect it’s a trait of Mediterranean culture. My grandmother and mother did it. I do it in French all the time–but I try to refrain from it in English.

I could certainly follow the seminar, and I took copious notes. With hindsight, however, I realize that I wasn’t hearing everything there was to hear. At the time, I was only dimly aware of accents, for instance. I could recognize a Porteño accent–you would have to be deaf not to hear the Italian-sounding lilt and and all the “sh” sounds where you would normally expect “y” sounds. To me, Spanish people just sounded really fast.

When I came upon the link to the interview with Muñoz Molina, I immediately recognized his voice, which has a very characteristic timbre. I also realized I was distinguishing something more. In the interview, in an answer to a question about the Spanish Civil War, he says:

“….estar peleandonos por lo que occurió hace tres cuartos de siglo, cuando el presente y el porvenir son tan difíciles y nos presentan problemas…”

But it comes out sounding like:

“…etar peleandono por lo que occurió hace tres cuarto de siglo, cuando el presente y el porvenir son tan difícile y no presentan problema….”

Wait a second, where did all the “s” go? “Is this an accent?” I wondered. I listened to the evening news on TVE, just to check. Sure enough, the Spanish newscasters all sound like human machine guns, but they do pronounce “s”.

Why am I only hearing this now? I guess that the awakening of my ears is a new stage in my own apprenticeship.

Conferencias en línea

Now that I have started working from Spanish in the booth, I feel I need to practice almost daily. It’s a matter of building up my confidence. To practice, I need material. Radio and television programs are helpful, but more for general knowledge than for simultaneous interpretation practice. In the media, the pace and register are geared for entertainment rather than communication.

Instead, I look for online lectures. Whereas YouTube is a valuable source, I find I waste a lot of time wading through irrelevant material before I find something useful. I need something more targeted. For now, the ITunesU app serves my purpose and gives me access to free online lectures from universities the world over, including Spanish and Latin American Universities.

I start with the lectures offered by Universidad de Navarra. Some are quite short (10-15 minutes), other are fifty-minute classes. the quality of the recordings is uneven, but generally it’s good enough. I write down new terms. An interview on new technologies in education yields a new expression “se cuenta con”, as in “se cuenta con los educadores que nos consultan sobre algún tipo de cuestión…”. From a lecture on the physical properties of materials, I learn the term grieta, cracks (or fissuresin French). In a lecture to student teachers, a Peruvian professor discusses what it means to be a good teacher, and I get an initial impression of what educated Peruvians sound like.

I practice shadowing, i.e. repeating what the speaker says simultaneously, taping myself and doing spot checks of the recording. I practice memorisation. I let the speaker talk for two or three minutes, pause the recording and do a summary in Spanish. I tape myself and check. I practice simultaneous, into French or English. It becomes easier every day.

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.

Buenos Aires – The Tree-lined Streets of Palermo Soho







Buenos Aires – Graffiti and Street Art







Language perks

Learning a language involves a great deal of work, from memorizing lists of words, to conjugating verbs and practicing your pronunciation. But there is a very major upside as well. Learning a language actually requires that you travel. There is no substitute for immersion. For those of us who have always dreamt of exploring the world, it’s an ideal excuse. When a friend asks “What are you doing this summer?”, I can answer, truthfully, “I’m going to Spain to work on my Spanish.” The fact that I also plan to spend a lot of time on the beach and/or by the pool is purely coincidental, of course.

Right now, I’m writing this blog entry from Buenos Aires. I signed up for an interpreter training course here in BA, where it’s summer. Meanwhile, in Paris, where I live, it’s cold and wet.

This is my fourth trip to Argentina, where they speak a very specific type of Spanish, which can be hard to understand if you’re not used to it.

I love Argentina, and BA is one of my favorite cities. I never get tired of it. BA is vibrant, cosmopolitan, trendy, messy, chaotic and very much alive. According to Wikipedia, it’s the second-largest metropolitan area in South America (the biggest is Sao Paolo in Brazil).

In the morning, I have classes, in the afternoon, I do homework, rest and visit. When the course is over, I will have a couple of weeks of leave to devote to traveling. This is the life I dreamt of as a child.

La verdad es que tengo mucha suerte.

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