Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Poquito. Make that poquitito.

I used to speak Spanish. Never great. I only took three semesters of it in college. I studied abroad in Ecuador and Peru for a combined total of fourteen weeks. Based on all of that education, I actually felt like my Spanish should have been much better than it was. I couldn’t read much. I couldn’t really watch TV (language still too fast), but I could have a general conversation and get by fine with life in those countries.

I’ve had a theory that learning Russian will actually help my Spanish. The third language will get me over some imaginary mental language hump and my brain will soak up future languages like a sponge. And after Russian, I could easily pick up Spanish again. I don’t know how valid this theory is, but looking at the complexity and insanity of Russian, I do long for the days of discerning por/para and trying to think when I should use subjunctive case.

Yesterday, I had a chance to practice my Spanish for the first time in a long time. I had a visitor staying with me from Spain. We talked mainly in English to start because Asela was also over for dinner and she doesn’t speak Spanish. But when Asela left, she told my guest (Maria) that I could speak Spanish. I was excited to try but also knew it wouldn’t get very far. Sometimes just for fun, I try to think of how to say something in Spanish, but my mind only produces Russian words. And when I don’t know the Russian word for something, Spanish still pops into my mind. And some words never seem to go away. (I am still more likely to ask for a servilleta than a salfectka (napkin). And I still think “Falta adeen chelovek” (missing (sp) one person (rus)).

It started out painfully slow. Maria asked where I learned Spanish.

V yniversidad. Nyet. No. No. En? En! En uiversidad. Ya. Yo. Yo. How do you say also?


Tambien! I was going to say tambien. Yo tambien. Zhil. Zhil. Zhil. How do you say live?


Vivo!. Vive? Vivia? Yo vivia v no en Ecuador y. How do you say and in Spanish?


Y? I was going to say that, but that’s what it is in Russian too, so I thought it couldn’t be right. Yo vivia en Edcuador y Peru.

Que hiciste ahi? (Maybe she said something different, but it was “What did you do there?” and I think that’s how you ask that question.)

Chto? What? Ahi? Ahi? He znaiyoo eto slova. I don’t know that word. Ahi?

Ahi. Ahi. There.

There? What’s here.


Oh! Aqui. Alli. You’re saying a-yee. A-yee! Wait. You’re from Spain. No wonder I can’t understand you. It’s the accento.

So the first two exchanges took about five minutes. Where did you study Spanish and what did do there? But it was a strange feeling as Maria reminded me of the words I once could speak without hesitation. Because they were so familiar to me. They fit. It was like having forgotten an event, and you hear your friends describe it, and you’re like, yes. Yes, that was it!

Slowly I re-learned, but not learned, I was re-familiarized with the words for people, team, sports, men, women, children (gente, equipo, deportes, hombres, mujeres, ninos). They were all coming back to me. And then there were some strange words I remembered myself. Apodo (nickname) and cancha (court, as in a basketball court). But every time I had to say a number, I had to start at one. (Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis…) Seis hombres! At times I would cycle through Russian and Kazakh before finally settling on Spanish, my brain realizing that it was supposed to be a foreign language, but not really sure which one. (Da, ye, si! Si!)

And then I would try to conjugate Spanish verb with Russian endings. Played. Jugar. Jugali! Of course. I think my pidgin Spanish/Russian would be perfectly understood by many PC volunteers who are in the same situation as me. But for Maria, a lot of it was lost. However some words are surprising similar (noch, noch, night; palmedor, palmedor (okay, that’s Italian), tomato). And in the end, I just switched back to English and bitched about how hard Russian was to learn. (Yeah, those two glasses there. Those are stakani. But if I say two glasses there, I say dva stakana. And if there are five. Well it becomes pyat stakanov. Yeah, it’s awful!)

I was glad to have the chance, and I do long for the simple noun structure of Spanish. And I really do think that one day, I’ll move back to Latin America for a few months and finally commit to learning Spanish. But until then, I’ll have to change my usual answer when people here find out I speak Spanish. Yo hablo poquitito. (Ya govaroo covcem chut-chut. I speak a little little Spanish.)


R. M. A. J. Romero said...

I've had a similar problem since I got back. It's been bad because the present tense Russian verb endings are similar to Latin (and so not too far removed from Spanish), so I have a bad habit of using Russian verb stems with Spanish endings.

At least it hasn't messed with my ASL. Yet.

hannah said...

Oh god, I have had the same problem - now that I'm taking Turkish, I keep running into my old Arabic teachers or colleagues from Saudi Arabia, and I just sound like a blithering idiot. Of course, when I had to speak to the Spanish instructors a few years ago, I just replaced the unremembered Spanish words with Arabic... Sentences like "Yo arabiyya darast fi la universidad" just don't make sense to anyone after 1492...

Becca said...

this post was HILARIOUS...made my day:P. hope to see you soon -- turns out I will be close (read the new post)! :D

Christina said...

Ha. SO SO true! Love the post. I have also been a victim of substituting the Spanish words I know for Russian words I don't :) Hate it when that happens!

Stephen said...

Ha! I was doing something similar when I was over there visiting you. Every time someone spoke to me in Russian or Kazak or I started to what little Russian I had I'd want to start throwing in Spanish.

Helen said...

Absolutely! Same here... one of the guys at work always tries to speak Spanish to me because when I said I was from southern United States I think I actually said South America and I can't say ANYTHING. sadness. it will come back?