Bilingual idiot

I bought this dictionary in 1979 at the PX in 29 Palms, California.

As a boy, I set the ambitious goal of learning ten foreign languages. I’m not sure how I came up with the number ten, but once I picked ten I stuck to it. And I’m still sticking to it even if it’s an unrealistic goal. As of today, I am still many languages away from achieving fluency in ten. But I like ten because it’s a nice round number.

I have had several setbacks along the way. For example, people would tell me, “Learn to speak English first!” (Have you ever noticed that people who insist that foreigners learn English only speak English? I’d like to see them learn another language!) Of course, they were right because my first language was Spanish. I spoke English very poorly at first and later with a foreign accent.

In my quest for foreign language fluency, I have studied many languages over the years. At Divine Heart Seminary, I took French as an elective my sophomore year in addition to Spanish with Señor Mordini. When I went to Tilden Technical High School, I continued my French studies with disastrous results, about which I wrote a blog post. At Gage Park High School, I gave up on foreign languages altogether.

In the Marines, I tried learning Japanese from a roommate who was stationed in Okinawa, Japan. I learned only as much Japanese as he knew, which wasn’t very much. But I can still say, “Domo arigato” and “Sayonara“! During this time, I spent a lot of time reading. I many read books on English grammar. I would check out books on grammar and writing from the library and read them cover to cover. My Marine roommates thought I was crazy, but that helped because then they avoided started trouble with me. I also bought a Spanish/English dictionary and I would browse through it to improve my Spanish vocabulary. I got this great idea from reading the biography of O. Henry who read a dictionary that he received as a gift for the first book he had ever read. Amazingly, I also improved my English vocabulary.

When I finally went to college, I studied Spanish in earnest for the very first time. The grammar I had learned from the English grammar books helped me immensely with the Spanish grammar that we studied in class. I also took Portuguese and did well in class, but I never did learn to speak Portuguese fluently because of a lack of time and contact with Portuguese speakers. I took Latin because I thought it would be fun and might prove helpful for the foreign language requirement if I actually went on for my Ph.D. Well, I didn’t learn to speak Latin either. Not that anyone speaks Latin anymore, but I did learn the difference between the relative pronouns who and whom.

So, I thought I would take a practical language that someone actually speaks worldwide.  I studied Russian for four semesters. There were very few cognates! It was only then that I realized that I had only studied Romance languages, other than English, and learning new vocabulary was fairly easy because of all the cognates derived from Latin. Sadly, I did well in Russian class, but I can’t speak Russian either.

The next language I studied–actually, I’m still studying it–is Polish. There aren’t very many Latin cognates, but since I studied Russian, some of the grammar rules are similar. Polish pronunciation is much easier than Russian. The most amazing part about learning Polish is that the accent always, with very few rare exceptions, falls on the second to the last syllable (la sílaba penúltima, en español). After studying Russian, I feel more confident studying Polish. Perhaps I will learn another language after all!

But I’m not so sure I will. Even though I have attempted learning other languages and failed, I console myself that I’m fully fluent in Spanish and English. Perhaps I am destined to forever remain a bilingual idiot.

Juan Goytisolo

Juan Calduch, Juan Goytisolo, and Dr. D. in 1999.

There are famous people and then there are famous people you never heard of.

As a graduate student in Hispanic Studies, I had to read a novel, La saga de los Marx, by Juan Goytisolo for a seminar on Modern Spanish (as in, from Spain) Literature. I had never even heard of Juan Goytisolo. Then the professor who assigned the novel assured the graduate seminar that he was world-famous. I just took her word for it. But I was suspicious of just how famous he was.

Well, regardless of his claim to fame, I began reading La saga de los Marx. I was captivated by Goytisolo’s writing. I couldn’t identify a protagonist or a setting. He inserted foreign languages sans translations. There was no storyline to speak of. Or standard punctuation, for that matter. He seemed to have studied grammar and stylistic rules only so he could break as many rules as possible. However, the writing piqued my curiosity and I read the novel in a mere two sittings.

When the class met to discuss the novel, only one other student said she had read the entire novel. But she wasn’t sure if she really liked the novel. I, on the other hand loved it! I immediately decided that I would write my seminar paper on this novel. I was intrigued by the postmodernist style.

As I was writing my paper, I decided to reread the novel to find supporting citations for my paper. Curiously enough, I enjoyed the novel even more upon reading it a second time. I loved it so much that I decided to write a letter to Juan Goytisolo, c/o of the publisher. Imagine my surprise when he wrote back! Usually when I like a writer that much, he or she has already been dead for a long time. Sometimes dying even before I was born. How rude!

Well, this paper inspired me to further my studies and become a doctoral candidate. I showed Juan Goytisolo’s letter to the seminar professor and she asked me to invite him to speak at UIC. He accepted the invitation and spoke at our university, with me as the guest of honor because he came on account of my letter and I was writing my doctoral dissertation on his novels. I was truly honored. I was also surprised at how many people came from miles around to hear Juan Goytisolo speak and plug his latest novel. He was a fascinating man, as I discovered while giving him a tour of the Chicagoland area.

Well, Juan Goytisolo truly is world-famous. Every year he gets nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. One of these days, he may actually win it. But to think I had never heard of him before that graduate seminar!

La composición

Diego Rivera's typewriter, Guanajuato, Guanajuato, Mexico

If you take enough Spanish classes, you will have to write a composition in Spanish. By that time, you will know enough Spanish vocabulary and grammar to write a good composition. Here are a few rules you should keep in mind while writing la composición.

Think in Spanish! The worst thing you can do is write out the composition in English and then translate it into Spanish. You are doing double the work! Brainstorm for your composition using the Spanish vocabulary that you already know. Begin writing your composition in Spanish, without looking up words in your dictionary. Insert words in English to look up later. The main goal is to write out most of the ideas for your composition in Spanish. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar until after your finish the first draft, el borrador in Spanish.

Give your composition a good descriptive title. Only the first letter of the title is capitalized: La fiesta que le dimos a mi abuelita para su cumpleaños. If you use a proper noun in the title, it must be capitalized: Las vacaciones de primavera en Puerto Rico.

Pronouns are used less often in Spanish than in English. Once the subject is established, the pronoun is no longer necessary: María era buena estudiante. Siempre llegaba a clase a tiempo. Participaba en todas las discusiones de clase. Siempre sacaba buenas notas. In all of the preceding sentences, we know that María is the subject even though we do not use the pronoun ella. Do not use another noun or pronoun for the subject until the subject changes Un día su mamá no la levantó a tiempo. La maestra se preocupaba por María.

When listing a series of items, do not use a comma before the last item: Compré pan, queso y huevos.

There are two abbreviations in Spanish and you must use them: a + el = al, de + el = del

In general, commas are used less often than in English.

Do not translate everything into Spanish. If you live in River Oaks, do NOT translate it into Río Robles. Julio Iglesias is NOT July Churches!

Adjectives of proper nouns are not capitalized. Frida Kahlo es mexicana. Shakira es colombiana, Penélope Cruz es española.

Days and months are NOT captialized: los días – domingo, lunes, martes, miércoles, jueves, viernes, sábado; los meses – enero, febrero, marzo, abril, mayo, junio, julio, agosto, septiembre, octubre, noviembre, diciembre.

“With me” and “with you” are written as one word: conmigo, contigo.


Plátanos fritos

One thing I like about teaching Spanish at UIC is the food! Students will use any excuse to bring food to the classroom. Spanish students learned to bring food in high school and they keep right on bringing it in college. I love it! If I could, I would design a Spanish course dedicated solely to comida de la cocina hispana.

My Spanish 104 class had to do oral presentations last week and some students found a way to prepare a dish that would highlight their proyectos. Of course, I never complain! I usually teach in the morning and most students are very hungry when they come to class. Okay, I’m hungry, too. So the food is always a very welcome visual aid for the student presenting. I’m looking forward to the next set of proyectos!


I want YOU!

You! Yeah, YOU!

When translating “you” into Spanish, be careful! “You is the second person singular subject pronoun. Quick! What is the plural of you? I hope you didn’t say “y’all” or “you guys”! In English, the plural of “you” is “you”! I occasionally have this argument with students who don’t seem to believe me because I’m a Spanish speaker. But it’s true. The second person plural subject pronoun in English is “you.”

Often my students will insist that the plural of “you” is “y’all” or “you guys.” Or, get ready for this, the even more emphatic “all y’all” or “youse guys.”* So how do I convince my students that the plural of you is you? I quote President John F. Kennedy: “And so my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.” “See!” I tell my students. “He addressed himself to ‘my fellow Americans’ and then he spoke to them calling them ‘you’!” They usually stopped disagreeing by this point, but I’m convinced that I haven’t fully convinced them. I think they resent being corrected by a native Spanish speaker.

But back to the Spanish lesson about translating “you” into Spanish. Since you is both singular and plural–And for you students of Spanish, oh, yes! It’s also formal and familiar!–you can translate “you” into Spanish as: tú, vos, usted, vosotros, vosotras, ustedes. Remember that tú, vos, vosotros, and vosotras are always familiar. Do not use them to talk to someone you just met or don’t know very well. Use usted and ustedes for more formal situations ¡Ojo! In Latin América, ustedes is used as the familiar second person plural subject pronoun instead of vosotros and vosotras.

So there you have it. I’m addressing myself to all of my readers. And by that I mean all three of you!

* I won’t even mention that the plural of “you” is “yin” in the state of Virginia!

La sirena

Lotería, el juego para todas las edades

When teaching Spanish, I always learn something new from my students, or rather mis estudiantes. Sometimes I don’t notice things that are part of our Mexican culture because they are just part of everyday life. For example, we don’t always notice daylight because it’s always there (in the daytime, of course) and we just take it for granted. In my Spanish classes, I just happen to take Spanish for granted. In fact, I’m rarely aware of which language I’m speaking. So when I’m supposed to be speaking English, I’m speaking Spanish, and vice versa.

So, today, we had a little bit of free class time so I decided to show a movie that was filmed in Spanish. Students just love watching movies in class. Rather than conversing in Spanish or doing more exercises. Well, I like to show movies in Spanish because this way they can learn something about Hispanic culture that they can’t learn from a textbook. A student had mentioned the Mexican movie Y tú mamá también earlier in the semester. In the culture section of our textbook SueñaGael García Bernal  is profiled and specifically mentions Y tú mamá también in his film credits. I thought this would be a good movie to teach students a little about Mexican culture and Mexican expressions, otherwise known as mexicanismos. Afterwards, the student who had originally mentioned the movie told me she thought the movie was a little racy. I have to admit that it is. I saw it at the show when it first came out. I was in a theater full of Mexicans at the Ford City Theaters and they were all shouting “¡Huy!” at some of the scenes at the end of the movie.

It seems that no matter what movie I show in class, a few students always comment about something in the movie that was offensive to them. All good movies will offend at least some of my students. Most of the other students love seeing the movie regardless of the content, whether deemed offensive or not. I’ve shown movies from México, Spain, Guatemala, Argentina, and the U.S. (in Spanish). They always seem to address some controversial topic such as sex, incest, murder, etc. and they usually have a tragic, depressing ending. But they are always good movies. The advantage of showing these movies is that I know none of my students saw them in their high school Spanish class. No sane high school teacher would dare show such risqué films without taking a chance of getting disciplined and/or fired. I teach at a university, so I have a little more liberty in film selection since all my students are older than eighteen.

Sometimes when students tell me they find a movie offensive because of too much violence or sex, I tell them that they may leave the class without penalty if they find the movie objectionable. No one ever leaves. In fact, they find the movie enthralling. So I just don’t understand why they complained in the first place. Perhaps, to clear their conscience. Besides, everyone loves Penelope Cruz movies and she hasn’t made a movie without any offensive topics. My favorite movie with her is the one where she plays a pregnant nun with AIDS.

On a couple of occasions, I offended some students unintentionally by playing Lotería. This is a board game similar to Bingo that I have been playing since I was a little boy. Every student gets a board with pictures of people and things such as La dama, El soldado, La rana, etc. There is a deck of cards with these same pictures. So I shuffle the cards and call out the names. If your board has the picture that I called out, you mark the picture with an uncooked pinto bean (provided by me, since students don’t happen to walk around carrying pinto beans with them, but I do). When you cover all the pictures with pinto beans, YOU WIN! And you shout ¡Lotería! at the top of your lungs and I give you a little prize like a packet of chiclets or something else that’s Mexican. This is a child’s game that you would think would not offend anyone. Well, if you thought that, you would be wrong!

Once, actually this happened several times, when I called, La sirena, a female student shrieked and said that the mermaid had exposed breasts. She was genuinely offended by the nudity. I didn’t know what to say. So I looked at the card of La sirena and sure enough she had exposed breasts! I’ve been playing Lotería my whole life and I never even noticed her exposed breasts. To me she was just a mermaid. A cartoon mermaid. All I ever saw was her long hair and her fish tail. I mean, if I saw a real mermaid in person, I wouldn’t be caught staring at her breasts!

Why didn’t I see La sirena‘s breasts before? I’m not sure. Probably because I always saw my mother breast-feeding my younger brothers. And in public, too! I remember my mother taking my brothers and me to the park to play in the playground and she would breast-feed my baby brother right there on the park bench. And she wasn’t alone, either! There were always at least two or three other mothers breast-feeding, too. Maybe I just view breasts differently from everyone else. Breasts were just part of my Mexican culture while growing up and I just never noticed them on La sirena or in movies until students point them out to me! ¡Ay! ¡Ay! ¡Ay!


Mexico D.F.

Be careful when talking about schools in Spanish! If you’re talking about school in the general sense, use escuela. For grade school, elementary school, and grammar school, use escuela primaria. For high school, use escuela preparatoria, escuala secundaria, colegio, or instituto. Unfortunately, there is no term for junior high school. When you graduate high school, you attend la universidad. Do not use colegio because colegio refers to high school. College and colegio are false cognates. If you attended a junior college or a community college, you must use universidad because junior and community colleges do not exist in the Spanish speaking world. 

Students in the general sense are estudiantes. If you are a college or university student, you are either an estudiante, alumno, or alumno subgraduado. Graduate students are alumnos graduados or alumnos de posgrado. 

Be careful what you call the teachers! Grade school and high school teachers are maestros  or maestras. High school teachers may also be profesor or profesora. College and university professors are either profesor(-a) or doctor(-a).

But I like going to e-school!