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 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 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.



A Spanish student's best friend!

Translation from one language to another always poses a problem. Dictionaries alone aren’t enough. They never have the latest technological terms. New products aren’t in there either. For new products, I looked at the sales inserts of our local Spanish papers and most of the time I found the term I needed.

Now, with the Internet, there are all kinds of translators available. Sometimes students use them for their Spanish compositions. They write the composition in English first and then have the translator translate it for them. I can always tell when they use the translator because the composition looks as if it’s written in Spanish. However, the text is unintelligible. Yes, every word is in Spanish, but the wrong words were chosen and the syntax is all wrong. The students write a better composition if they write entirely in Spanish. Even when they make mistakes, I can still decipher their intended meaning.

Occasionally, when I need to translate a word that’s not in one of my many dictionaries, I go to the internet and use an online translator for a word or two. Not all the translations are satisfactory. I’ve discovered that makes a great translator. A student needed to translate jigsaw puzzle and none of my dictionaries had it. So I looked up jigsaw puzzle on Wikipedia and then I chose to read the article in Spanish got rompecabezas. For years, I’ve meaning to translate Daylight Saving Time into Spanish unsuccessfully. Today I looked it up on wikipedia and got el horario de verano. This method would work for many languages because most of the Wikipedia articles are translated into many languages.

Spanish textbooks


Spanish books

Sometimes Spanish textbooks inadvertently include words that invoke negative connotations or just plain poor choices. For example, I’ve seen some books include “tonto” in the glossary as meaning, “silly” or “foolish.” Yes, it does mean that, but in general no Spanish-speaker uses that word unless they really want to insult someone. “Tonto” is practically a swear word in almost every context. I always warn students not to use this word, and if they do, they should be prepared to be punched. I saw one book explain the diminutive of words like “casa” changing to “casita,” and “hijo” changing to “hijito.” That’s all well and good, but then the textbook gave the example of “mamá” changing to “mamacita.” In real life, no Spanish speaker would call their mother “mamacita.” The only time you really hear “mamacita” is when the vato on the corner is flirting with a girl walking by and he says, “¡Oye, mamacita! ¡Qué chula estás!” Another book bothered me with its choice of negative examples. I prefer something that offers positive reinforcement, but, no, this textbook in explaining comparisons of inequality stated, “Estos estudiantes son más estúpidos que esos estudiantes.” What kind of thing is that to say in a classroom? “These students are stupider that than those students.” I used one textbook with all these ambiguous illustrations that didn’t really clarify the lesson at all. In one of the drawings for the lesson on reflexive and reciprocal sentences, one cowboy is removing the boot off the foot of another cowboy! Every class of mine that looked at the drawing always laughed when we did the exercise. I would just tell them it was a scene taken from Brokeback Mountain.

¡Oye, mamacita! ¿Would you like to go out with this tonto?