After 5 years in this country, you might begin to think that I am fluent, 100% bilingual, and I would thank you for that assumption, but you would be wrong. Sadly. Sadly, I still make mistakes in Spanish, and these mistakes do drive me crazy, because most of the time (not all the time), I know exactly when I’ve made a mistake. Some Spanish native speakers love to correct me, immediately, as though they were doing me a great favor by enlightening me as to how to speak correctly. And I sort of understand that; I get that they are trying to be helpful in a way they know how to be, but usually I realize immediately that I’ve screwed up. That’s why I like writing. Mario’s cousin told me once that she never knew which of was writing to her on Whatsapp (Mario is a luddite and has no esmarfon, so we share mine), because my written Spanish is so good. #humblebrag
Yet there exist those things that still trip me up to this day. What are they?
I was having a conversation the other day with Mario—in English this time. (It varies.) We were talking about my trip out west and an animal I encountered along the way: a chipmunk. In Spanish, the word for chipmunk and squirrel is the same—la ardilla. Note the article. It’s feminine. So, I was talking, and I said, “He had a mouth full of twigs. It was so cute!” And Mario replied, “I think you mean she. It’s la ardilla, after all.” Of course, he was halfway joking, but it still made me laugh. It made me think too. It’s so funny how learning Spanish has helped me understand my own languages: the quirks, the interesting word origins (etymology is so fascinating!), and just grammar in general. Guys, we do have a subjunctive tense in English. So pay attention.
The Whole Gender Thing
In Mario’s worldview, all animals with a female article should be referred to as females. I once called a snake a “he.” I don’t know why; it just came out. But nooooo, he insisted, snakes were shes. Same goes for la cigüeña (the stork) or la nutria (the otter). It made me wonder why, in English, we refer to cars and boats as she and most animals as he (until we know better).
In high school and college, speaking Spanish was a ton of fun! I didn’t have “off days,” I didn’t feel bad about my accent, and I never felt self-conscious! I thought I was pretty darn good at Spanish too. (In truth, I wasn’t half bad.)
That all changed when I first set foot in Spain in 2008. Suddenly, I realized I didn’t understand a lot of things. I got nervous when people gave me directions, nodding stupidly, and hoping they wouldn’t notice when I walked off in a direction opposite to the one in which they had told me to go. Vale became my favorite, end-the-conversation-NOW word. Every so often, a Spaniard would compliment my English, but I knew they were lying. They just had to be!
Slowly, through my years in Spain, I grew more confident in my abilities. I learned so many new words, phrases, and ways of speaking. My Spanish family is sometimes delighted when I say things like, ” … que no veas,” as though what I said was, indeed, la leche. There are good days, days when the words flow, and people don’t have to wait for me to spit out the word vitrocerámica (why can’t we just call it a fogón?). These days are when I feel most competent and fluent, the days I like (sometimes even love!) speaking castellano.
Some days I’m really motivated to study Spanish. Other days, not so much. It all depends on the amount of coffee and carbs I’ve had that day. (Hint: more coffee equals better studying, while more carbs equals better napping.)
For my birthday, my friends gave me a book, which is great for language nerds like me who spend their free time reading linguists’ blogs and articles about language change. Yep, that’s me. So obviously I was quite enthused by the gift and the thought that went behind it.
Presenting Kaley’s Favorite Books for Learning Spanish
Las 500 dudas más frecuentes del español is the book I got for my birthday a few weeks ago. Just like we do in English, Spanish-speaking people make mistakes when writing and speaking Spanish. This book is designed to help clear up any debates about the correct usage of the language. I recognize that spoken and colloquial language may not follow these guidelines, but written language needs to adhere to them in order to be fit to print.
Quick, a quiz!
¿Está bien dicho Cuidado, que caes el vino? (For the answer, check out page 232.)
¿Está bien dicho Me miraba de arriba a abajo? (Answer on page 300.)
¿Por qué algunas palabras como azúcar o mar admiten tanto el masculino como el femenino? (Answer on page 194.)