On Keeping Up With Spanish

A few months ago, I posted on my attempts to re-learn Spanish using the mobile app Duolingo. In the meantime, I've kept at it: six days a week with at least some progress.

As the details of the language return to me, I find myself surprised that anything managed to stick.* At six months (more or less) of progress, I reached the point at which I recognized the need to now do something with my language study. Working on vocabulary exercises and verb tenses is nice but insufficient for any actual use. Consequently I've decided to supplement Duolingo with two additional sources. The first is a simple one-volume Spanish-for-reading textbook, and the other is with an actual in-Spanish version of a novel I know well in its English translation, 2666. Yes, like a crazy person I am beginning with a 900-page novel, albeit one divided into five smaller sections. The textbook is designed for people with no previous Spanish experience (thus I breezed through the first chapter in three or four days of 15-30 minutes of effort), and focused primarily on teaching one how to recognize the syntactical components of Spanish sentences: see the structure, figure out which words go together, learn what the words mean. And, indeed, there was something thrilling about making it through a page and a half of entirely Spanish text without need of a dictionary, even as I was perfectly aware of how basic the text was. For me, reading is at the basis of listening and speaking: if I can see the parts of a sentence that go together, then I can 'see' them when someone else is speaking, and I can produce them when I'm talking.

2666's purposes are more prosaic. As I learned many years ago with Latin, you can memorize all the verb tenses and noun declensions you like, but they are of little use reading and translating, because no one but Cicero ever wrote that way. The novel is a first cut of someone actually using the language to attempt to do things. I have found it to be considerably easier than I expected: after some growing pains, a couple pages a day presents no issues. The only thing hampering me at the moment, in fact, is the pedantic insistence on going over the text sentence-by-sentence in order to make sure I'm really understanding what is being said. Otherwise, I'd be worried that I relied too much on context clues to interpret the parts I couldn't directly understand. But how would that be any different than reading Shakespeare for the first time?

My goal remains reading Javier Marías' Así empieza lo malo before it is translated into English and, surprisingly enough, this looks to be an eminently plausible goal.

*I'm not convinced the textbooks we used in junior high and high school were part of the same program, and those from college were certainly different. The level of instruction was, charitably, variable, though I did benefit from two very good Spanish natives, one of whom was good at teaching us Spain's various dialects. Spanish instruction has to deal with a 'Mexico problem' in a way perhaps not comparable to other foreign languages--people who learn it primarily to be slightly better able to use it when vacationing in the culturally fraught sense of 'visiting Tijuana' as opposed to 'visiting Paris,' and instruction varies widely on how much in tolerates the also culturally fraught use of Spanglish (secondary education Spanish instruction, at least in my experience, has a lot of people whose experience of the Spanish-speaking world doesn't run much beyond visiting Mexico). Native speakers from Spain tend (again, in my experience) to be a lot less patient about all of this, and a lot more expansive in their concept of what Spanish has to offer, culturally.

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