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Some Major Insight About Language-Learning from My Two Weeks in Spain

Ok, so I’ve been here two weeks now, I’ve done nearly ten face-to-face language exchanges so far (all with native speakers), I’ve interacted with other natives quite a bit (buying groceries, ordering food, etc.), and I’ve got some insight I want to share in the form of two major problems I’ve noticed:

1. Speed.  This refers to the speed at which people normally talk but it’s not quite so simple as “gosh people sure are talking fast here”.

I know I briefly mentioned this a couple posts ago but I want to expand on it a bit here.

To be able to communicate with people you have to be able to understand them first, and in this context (non-native speaker attempting to communicate with native speaker) I think your ability to understand is actually quite a bit more important than your ability to speak.  Why?  Because they can muddle through and figure out your stumbling, awkward attempts at speaking their language, they can figure out what you’re trying to say, but if you can’t understand them then you’re screwed, that’s it, it’s over, communication has failed.

Now, natives talk at what seems to non-natives a very high rate of speed.  This is where the problem of speed comes in, specifically speed of thought: how fast can you understand spoken Spanish (or whatever the language in question is)?  You may know all the words they’re using, understand the meaning of all the various idioms and phrases and slang involved, but if it takes you longer to do so – to interpret what was just said – than it does for them to move onto the next thing they’re going to say then, again, you’re screwed.  Why?  Because here’s what will happen…

They’ll start to say something (for the sake of example, let’s say it’s a statement that’s ten sentences long) and by the time you’ve figured out Sentence #1, they’ve already said Sentence #2 and #3 which you’ve completely missed – didn’t register at all in your head – because you were entirely occupied figuring out Sentence #1, so now they’re moved onto Sentence #4 – you’ve missed #2 and #3 – where you pick up again, likely somewhere in the middle and not at the beginning unless you were lucky which means you probably won’t get the whole meaning of this sentence either (#4), so now you catch the last half of Sentence #4 and while you’re trying to figure that out they say the next sentence – which you miss completely – and now you hear Sentence #6 which takes you a few seconds to understand in your head and by the time you’ve done that they’re in the middle of Sentence #9 which you catch the last part of before they end with Sentence #10 which you probably won’t get either because you spent at least the first half of it or so figuring out the last part of Sentence #9 that you just heard.

This is the problem.

I shall borrow a very apt illustration from Jeremy Clarkson who was explaining the same problem as it applied to driving a regular car versus the new Ferrari F12 that he felt just overwhelmed you with too much to do:

It’s just like that.  Reading your target language at your own pace, or having a native speak slowly and clearly enough such that you’ve got all the time you need, is like simply hitting one single tennis ball back and forth across the court, whereas (for a non-native speaker still trying to get up to speed in the language) having a native speaker talking to you at full tilt is like being bombarded with dozens of balls all fired at once and being expected to be able to return every single one.

2. Phrasing. Yet again, simply put but not so simple.

What I mean is that each language – and sometimes certain countries or even regions – has its own particular way of putting words together to form information that people want to convey.  They each have their own way of doing this and if you don’t know it, you can’t communicate (or will at least have a very hard time doing so), even if you know and understand every single word that makes up these phrases.

I’ve got so many examples I’ve recently learned here in Spain it’s impossible for me to remember and list them all, but here are just a few:

“¿Me puedes poner [whatever it is you want to order]?”

This is by far the most common way of ordering something at a bar or restaurant, it’s their equivalent of “Could I have…? / I would like… / Can I get…/ etc.”.  It’s a very simple phrase using very common, basic words that any Spanish student with at least a couple of weeks under their belt is likely to know…but…

Almost none of them know that this is how you convey that particular request in that particular context nor would most of them understand what it meant without the context to reference it against.  I didn’t.  I started out saying “Quisiera” or “Me gustaría” and getting weird looks from the natives.  I understand – and have understood for years – what all the components (words, grammar, etc.) that make up that phrase mean, but I didn’t know the phrase itself until I saw it being used by someone else.  It immediately made sense to me (“Me puedes poner” = “Can you put for me”, that is “Can you put this [the product] here in front of me”) but I never in a million years would’ve come up with that on my own if you asked me to tell you how to properly request a beer or coffee at a bar in Spain.

How about another?

“¿Cuando quieres quedar?”

That’s how you ask someone when they’d like to meet (been using it a lot for setting up in-person language exchanges aka intercambios).  Not with “conocer” or maybe “reunir“, like I thought before.  “Quedar” literally means “to stay” or “to remain”, but it’s just how they convey that particular concept.  Why?  I have absolutely no idea.  It may be possible to track down the origins of this but I doubt it.  It’s just the way they say it.

Oh, and an informal meeting is “una quedada” – that’s not even listed in the dictionary when you look up “meeting” but it’s what you’ll use in Spanish the majority of the time you need to say the equivalent to “meeting” in English.  I’ve been told it’s exclusive to Spain.

“No se me dan bien los caballos.”

That’s how you say “I’m not good with horses”.  Let that sink in a moment.  “dan” means “they give” (referring to the horses), so what you’re literally saying is “The horses don’t give me well”.  That’s the way you would say that you’re not good with a particular type of people or animal or that you don’t get along well with them.  An English speaker would naturally be inclined to say something like “No estoy bien/bueno con los caballos.”…and that would be completely wrong and either not make any sense at all to a native Spanish speaker or it would convey a meaning that you didn’t want to convey.

The Solution

Is obvious.  It’s simply to teach these things in whatever book or course you’re creating if you’re the teacher.  If you’re the student it’s to make sure you know them before you get in-country.

Actually executing those solutions is a whole other problem altogether.

Lesson learned.  I could prattle on for hours with native speakers via Skype before coming here but I didn’t know how to say these simple things because the context requiring them was never there.  Same thing with what I mentioned before about how I didn’t know how to say “dish-washing detergent” – it never came up in conversation and the popular media (movies, books, TV shows, etc.) I used to learn Spanish sure never mentioned them because they’re not sexy, they’re not entertaining (and that stuff is…entertainment, of course).

This isn’t a complete solution, of course, but it’s a start.  As they say: the first step to solving a problem is realizing that you’ve got one in the first place.



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