I’ve had a three week break from teaching classes and have focused most of the time on improving my Spanish. New classes start next week and I hope my time has been well spent. Yesterday, I got this email from Synergy Spanish, one of the programs I’m using to learn both the language and the culture. I thought you might enjoy an excerpt from it:
There’s a classic language joke that I share with my upper level English students.
What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Answer: Tri-lingual.
What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Answer: Bi-lingual.
What do you call someone who speaks just one language?
Answer: a US American.
As a rule, Americans speak English, only, and are often very poor at grammar.
Full disclosure: I did take a language in school: Latin. It’s helped me with grammar and root words, but not with speaking. I wish I’d learned languages when I was younger, when it was easier for my brain to wrap around new vocabulary and my tongue to easily twist to new sounds. But I’m not going to learn any younger.
Mexico is my 5th consecutive foreign country to take up residence in (for those who are counting, there’s Vietnam, Turkey, Spain and Russia). In each, I’ve made an attempt (relative to my length of stay) to learn the language. In most countries I’ve taught English as a way to support myself. Spanish, however, is the first language I’ve set a real goal to become functional in. Notice I didn’t say fluent. That’s too much for me to imagine right now. I can envision learning the language well enough to function on a day-to-day basis.
So here’s what I’ve learned: It’s pretty amazing what you can do with just 55 words in a language. Honest. I start with 30 nouns (choose things you use every day. I start with food words & objects I use at work), 5 adjectives (pretty, happy, good, bad, sad), 5 verbs in simple present tense (want, need, say, walk, do), 4 adverbs (more, slowly, fast, not) and, MOST IMPORTANT, a handful of polite words (please, thanks, hello, goodbye, I’m sorry, excuse me.). You can get by in simple transactions like buying groceries or just walking around. Obviously, you will do a lot of pantomime and pointing. You’ll certainly look pretty silly most of the time. Get over yourself. You’ll still have to order food off a picture menu or point at street food, but you won’t starve. You’ll almost certainly be clueless as to what people are saying around you. Yes, they could be saying that you’re a stupid foreigner. You are. Get over that, too.
The next words to know are some simple phrases like, “I don’t speak very well.” “Please speak slowly.” “I don’t understand.” “I don’t know.” “What is that?” “How much does this cost?” and “Where is the bathroom/store/bank/pharmacy/hospital/post office?” PRACTICE THESE UNTIL THEY FALL OFF YOUR TONGUE EASILY. You will use them a lot.
But it gets better quickly. If you can learn the sentences above and double your vocabulary to just 100 words, you can now probably order in a restaurant without pictures, buy easy access items in a store, and ask very simple directions. And whether you realize it or not, you’ve been introduced to the structure of the grammar. Look at the sentences you memorized. Is the verb in the middle (like Spanish) or at the end (like Turkish). Does the structure of a sentence change when you ask a question (like English) or can you just add a question mark (like Spanish). At the end of a sentence, does your voice go up (like Turkish, English or Spanish) or would that change the word (as in tonal languages like Vietnamese)? Do the adjectives come before the noun (like Spanish) or after (like English). Are the words pronounced as they are spelled (which is true in most languages) or not (English). You’re learning, even though you may not know it.
I believe that if you can stick with it and up your total vocabulary to 1000 of the right words, you can be functional. Those words need to include simple present and simple past verbs, time words (today, tomorrow, next week, yesterday, year..), plus you’ll need to know numbers, days of the week, months of the year and direction words (left, right and straight). You’ll need the question words (who, what, when, where, why, how) and pronouns (he, she, it, we, they, you, this, that). With these words, you can function. You probably can’t negotiate a better home loan, discuss the finer points of poetry or defend yourself in court, but you can do most everyday things. With just 1000 words you can go about your business with little difficulty.
So that’s my current goal in Spanish: to be functional. It would be nice to be fluent, but I just can’t see that far yet. I hope, if I work hard enough, that I can be functional at the end of a year here. I take two classes a week and sit in on two classes that are a level above me. I’m a third of the way through a beginner’s book. There are three books and I expect to complete them in that time. I am also working through DuoLingo’s website, though at a very slow pace. I practice on my students and in the street daily.
And it’s working, though slowly. Every week, I can understand more of what my Spanish speaking students and co-workers say. Every day, I learn new words. With each conversation, I can remember one or two new words that I need to use to better communicate. It’s slow. It’s tough, but I’m learning.
I’m sure my life looks messy and disorganized from the outside. It is certainly less stable and predictable than when I had a condo and a cubical job. But I do have goals and a bit of a plan. Just a bit.
Two great things that happened today:
1). Even with the light pollution of the city, I saw a falling star! It’s the Perseids meteor shower and this is supposed to be the best one for a decade. Tomorrow night is the height of the shower.
2). I realized I could understand most of the Spanish lyrics of a song playing on the radio of a car that was stopped at the light as I walked past. Progress!
I’ve gotten into a routine here in Mexico. I wake up about 8am, check and answer emails and social media while drinking my first cup of coffee. I’ve got a hot pot in my room, which I bought here, and a filtering water pitcher that I brought from Russia. Maybe I have a second cup of coffee while doing 2 quizzes on DuoLingo. Then I stretch and do some abdominal exercises—nothing fancy. It’s a 15 minute routine. I grab breakfast in the kitchen—usually something simple that requires little or no cooking, but I try to include protein.
Then I study from my Spanish notebook and text and prepare for my first two classes—trying not to spend too much time at it. I stick to the school’s materials and only add something if I really need to.
After that, I’m free to do my daily chores, explore the city, work on my blog, stream Netflix or go for a walk. At 3pm I got to Spanish class. My Spanish classes are now only 2 days a week (not happy about the change since it was originally 5 days a week), on Mondays and Wednesdays. However, I sit in on Orlando’s classes on Tuesday and Thursday. He’s a full level ahead of me. I don’t get everything, of course, but I try to get the broad strokes of the grammar, and focus on new vocabulary and listening.
At 4p I teach my first two classes—Levels 23 and 8. I prepare for the second set of classes—Levels 16 and 11–during my one hour evening break. If I have time, I review Spanish vocabulary again. Classes are over at 9pm, and I take the bus just over half of the 2 mile walk home.
My schedule may be completely different in the next 4-week session.
I’ve mostly figured out the routine here at the flat so that I can get a shower when there’s hot water. I’m simply not cooking much in the kitchen and if I can find paper plates (not Styrofoam) I’ll use those instead of pre-washing my dishes before use. I don’t cook much—mostly warm up ready-made enchiladas or cook an omelet. The couple in room #2, next to mine, moved out, so I “borrowed” a set of sheets (they had at least four), a chair (I left one chair and a desk) and a wastebasket from their room to use in mine. That will save me some money, since I didn’t want to invest in a temporary room. No luck finding another place to live, though. I’ve asked around and heard a few promises, but nothing has come of it. I’m making myself comfortable here for as long as needed, but without spending much money on the situation. Payday is Monday for the first half of the month. I’ll need all of it to make the rent.
Among my chores today was sending my mother’s birthday present. Mexican mail service leaves something to be desired, so I tried to send it FedEx through Office Depot. Their sign indicates they have this service. Except they don’t. They will have a different international shipping service in 2 or 3 weeks (Translation: probably before the end of the year.) A nice man at the store gave me directions to another shipper. First he said to walk two blocks (which turned out to be 5 blocks. This happens so often that I always as for the street name, “Cual calle?”) and make a right. I had to open the package to prove to the woman behind the counter that I wasn’t shipping something illegal. The whole thing, with walking and going to two places, took 2 hours. But the good news is that I was able to do the transaction mostly in Spanish and only had to resort to Google Translate a couple times.
Every day I get an opportunity to practice my Spanish. Tonight, I took the bus coming home from class. An older man sat down beside me. He looked to be a farmer who had spent many hours in the sun. One arm wasn’t working and he had a crutch. He began talking to me and I told him, in Spanish, that I only spoke a little Spanish, that I spoke English. He was undeterred. I had an awful time understanding him—partly because of my poor skills with the language and partly because he had only two or three teeth, so his pronunciation was poor. I had to say several times, “Lo siento. No entiendo.” (I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”) Eventually, I understood he was asking if I lived in the center of the city. “No, vivo antes del Centro” (“No, I live before the center” meaning I would get off the bus before we got to the center city neighborhood). Then I heard the question, “Casada?” (Married?) Oh dear! I just learned that word this week and here it is! Well, I figured I could out run him if there was a problem, so I answered honestly. “No estoy casada.” I was so glad when my bus stop arrived.
Also, I found this YouTube video about Gapachos in Mexico. Enjoy
I am trying to learn Spanish. I am not doing so well, but as I tell my students, learning a language is a series of failures. If you don’t make a mistake, you are simply not trying hard enough. Clearly, I’m trying.
I was trying to ask my students the question, “When is your birthday?” (¿Cuando es tu cumpleaños?) But my pronunciation isn’t very good. Instead of “año,” the Spanish word for year, I said “ano” which is a completely different word.
Go ahead. Look it up on Google Translate. I’ll wait.
Is this not proof that I’m trying really hard? Even if I’m failing monumentally?
It’s been a busy couple of weeks. Let’s see if I can sum things up:
I Got Paid: My contract with English Time here is Istanbul ended Monday, Feb 1. I was promised I’d be paid that day (or the next day at the latest) in my home branch at Şirinevler. Of course it wasn’t that simple, naturally. ET restructured their school branches as of that very day and suddenly no one wanted to be responsible for paying me. On top of that, the branch manager for Şirinevler was suddenly gone with no explanation, so no one was actually in charge there. I was given a lot of frustrating mis-information, but eventually went to the head office in Mecidiyeköy and camped out until they paid me at the end of the day Wednesday, Feb 3. The money included my hourly wages for January, an end-of-contract bonus and a travel reimbursement, so it was a substantial amount of cash. It’s enough to fund some future adventures without having to dip into savings. I am relieved to finally be paid, but the runaround did nothing to endear me to the school.
Oddly, the first thing they did after paying me was to offer me another contract! I laughed, then closed my mouth and waved goodbye as I walked out. I fear the unladylike (and useless) utterances that would have passed my lips if I had replied. Maybe I’ve finally learned some diplomacy? Or maybe I was just tired.
New Work: I have a verbal agreement on a summer job in Russia. I’m very excited about this as it’s an interesting country and June and July seem like the best times to live there. I might not be hardy enough for a winter in Russia! I’ll be the first native English speaker that the school has ever had, so it will be an experience for all of us. More about the school later.
I have interviewed with a few other places, but last night had a good conversation with a school in Mexico. That seems to be my best option at the moment for work beginning in August (assuming they offer me a position). It doesn’t pay well, but I have a friend who worked there before and I trust his opinion of the school. Frankly, I’ve had two disappointing posts in a row and it would be a blessing to my mental health to be somewhere that lived up to its contract. Also, this school is closed on Sundays, so I’m guaranteed at least one day off a week. Overwork and slow payments are getting tiresome.
Spanish: I work daily on my Spanish and while I am making progress, I’m pretty horrible. It’s surprising how poor at languages I can be when I love them so much! I’m using DulLingo on the laptop (which I do daily), an app on my phone called iLang (for vocabulary practice) and I’ve completed lessons 1-5 in Pimsleur (which I listen to while I walk). I’ll be in Spain for 2.5 months and need to have a functional level of language. Plus it will help tremendously if I am offered the job in Mexico. Many Americans speak Spanish, not to mention Spain, Mexico and almost all of South and Central America. It’s an important language to know. Wish me luck.
But let me add that learning Spanish as I live in Istanbul and need to converse in Turkish while teaching English grammar, is disorienting. I don’t always know what language will come out of my mouth!
2016 is going to be another year of adventure! Here’s the short list:
February: Leave Istanbul. Visit Athens, Greece on my own and and Edinburgh, Scotland with two dear friends, Julia and Kathy from NY. Kathy went to school there so she will be an excellent tour guide!
March: A few days in Barcelona, Spain, then volunteer teaching and a teacher improvement program in Valencia, Spain. I’m quite excited because I’ll be there over Easter, which should be spectacular. Also, there’s something called the Fire Festival that should make for some great blog photos! The last days of the month, I will head to Pamplona, Spain to meet three dear US friends: Kathy (NY), Stephanie (VA) and Tim (TX).
April to mid-May: Three of us will become pilgrims and hike the Camino (aka The Walk, The Way of St. James) from Pamplona to Santiago, and then (if our feet are still good) on to the sea at Finisterra! It’s an ancient pilgrim’s path to the church at Santiago where the bones of St. James are supposed to be buried. There are many paths to this church, but we are walking one of the main one, usually called The French Way. Selfishly, I convinced my partners to skip the Pyrenees mountains on the French/Spanish border. The weather is precarious in April and besides, I hiked enough mountains on the AT for a lifetime! This is traditionally a religious pilgrimage. I’m not a particularly religious person, though I have a spiritual side. If we do the entire distance, it’s “only” 500 miles. I think this will be an easier walk than the AT hike: less elevation change, more fresh food, we will stay in hostels every night and eat fresh food every day. Because I don’t need a tent or stove, my pack will be ridiculously light, as well. Oh, and wine. There will be wine! Hum…..bottles of wine might weight the pack down a bit. And where did I pack that cork screw?
Mid-May to June: Not planned yet, but ideally, I’d like to see a bit of Russia before I start teaching there. What I’ve checked out so far is horribly expensive, so we will see…..
June and July: Teaching a summer school program in Nakhodka, Russia. The city is located on the Pacific Ocean, near Vladivostok. The school pays me, takes care of travel there and back and provides accommodations.
August: Still working on this, but by this point I’ll really need a year-long contract and stay put for a while.
Did I mention I love my crazy, nomadic life?