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.
When I attended Divine Heart Seminary, Latin was no longer the required language for freshmen and sophomores, so I studied Spanish. My sophomore year, I continued to study Spanish, but I also took French as an elective. I was the only sophomore in the class and the rest were juniors and seniors who had abandoned Latin. There was a certain mystique to study French ever since the seminary hired Miss Lundi to teach French, who was partly responsible for me enrolling in her class. Ever since I was little, I had this desire to be fluent in at least ten languages. So, there I was anticipating studying Spanish and French. However, when I returned to the seminary from summer vacation, I heard the rumor that Miss Lundi would not be returning to Divine Heart Seminary. The details of the rumor were sketchy, which made it even more salacious! The previous year, Miss Lundi had found a teacher’s pet who was an all-around varsity jock in his senior year. He was tall and muscular and as hairy as a caveman. Rumor had it that their friendship blossomed into a full-blown romantic tryst. But for the fact that he was already eighteen years old, no crime had been committed. However, Miss Lundi was not asked to return to the seminary.
Well, we were all abuzz wondering who would now teach us French. We also wondered who would be lucky enough to become the French teacher’s pet. We were all full of hope and elevated expectations. On my way to my first day of French class, I could sense that there was a lot of excitement in the hallway. In fact, a couple of upperclassmen rushed past me to get good seats in the classroom. In the process, they bumped into me, and my glasses fell off my face. Another student ran past me and accidentally stepped on my glasses. I picked up the pieces and put them in my pocket since I could no longer wear them. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as I would soon learn. Well, when I walked into the classroom, the class was staring at the new French teacher. The whole classroom smelled of expensive French perfume. She was hot! Only I couldn’t really be sure without my glasses. I was judging her based on the reactions of my classmates who were so painfully obvious as to how they felt about her. She had long black hair, blue eyes, a svelte figure, and beautiful legs. Oh, yes, I am a leg man! I may not have learned much French that year, but I did learn that I am a leg man! Much to the dismay of the students in the front row right by the new French teacher, she immediately assigned desks by alphabetical order. As luck would have it, I was stuck all the way in the back row in the corner at a desk with horrible sight lines. She immediately began the class by introducing herself in French and the entire class of adolescent boys just melted, this author included. Actually, “melted” is not the most accurate word to describe our physical reactions as teenage boys with an over-active libido, if you know what I mean.
She sashayed back and forth across the classroom as she spoke. All eyes followed her back and forth as if watching the French Open. Within minutes, she began writing things on the blackboard in French. While her back was turned some of the students silently made irreverent and obscene gestures, but they stopped immediately when she turned to face the class again. She told us to copy what she had written on the board. Without my glasses, I couldn’t read a word. I asked her if she could read the board aloud. She gave me a quizzical look and I explained that my glasses were broken and I couldn’t read the board from the back of the room. She immediately moved me to the desk in the front row directly in front of her desk. The student whom I displaced was relegated to my desk in the back row and hated me for the rest of the academic year. To this day, I’m afraid that I will bump into him in some dark alley for fear of how he might avenge himself on me for the loss of the best desk in French class.
I took my glasses to the optometrist for repairs, but I wouldn’t get them back for two weeks. Two weeks! For two weeks, I sat in the front row of French class, and I still couldn’t read the board. I would copy the questions from the board and ask her if I had copied them correctly. She would stand at my side and bend over to read my notebook. Well, she had spent the previous summer in Paris and done a little shopping at many boutiques, so she had quite a wardrobe of the latest Parisian fashions. She wore low-cut dresses with high hemlines. She said that her dresses were décolleté, which if I remember correctly is French for, “I think I’ll show off my breast today!” So, when she bent over to check my notebook, I was exposed to quite a scenic view. Soon, the rest of the class was asking her to check their work, too. Every boy vied to become the teacher’s pet. But she was too wise for them and soon stopped checking everyone’s work.
When I finally got my glasses back, our assigned desks were ours for the rest of the semester! She never even noticed that I was wearing my glasses now. When I finally got a good look at her with my glasses, I felt as if I had been blind until then. What I had imagined her to look like from a distance without my glasses correcting my nearsightedness paled in comparison with her actual beauty. She truly looked like a runway model who had walked of the pages of a French fashion magazine. Why was she teaching French at a Catholic seminary? Well, rather than question God’s infinite wisdom, I decided to enjoy my newfound vision that felt like the superpower of a comic-book hero. The beauty of the whole situation was that she spent most of the class sitting on her desk directly in front of me. Her dresses were marvels of fashion design. Like a good French composition, they were long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to keep it interesting. When she sat on her desk, her dress reminded me of the tidal movements of the ocean. Just as when the ocean causes a high tide on one shore, the waters will recede on another. So, too, her dress would emulate tidal movements. And I had the best seat in the house! If she wriggled too much while sitting on her desk, her skirt would recede up her thighs. If she pulled her skirt down too far, she would expose too much of her breasts. But the absolute highlight of the class came when she sat on her desk and would forget that she was sitting in front of twenty libidinous adolescent boys. She would actually cross her legs at the knees. As I sat right in front of her, I could see the color of her panties. After class, everyone would surround me and ask me what color they were. I was the pride and envy of French I.
That was the best French class I ever took, but I never did learn to speak French! Other than, “Je ne sais pas.”
Cinco de Mayo is another Mexican holiday that our Mexican family never celebrated. I never even heard of it until I was old enough to drink alcoholic beverages. I think that it has become a beer company holiday in America, just as Hallmark appropriated Valentine’s Day into a holiday in order to sell Valentine’s Day cards. Beer companies would love to see Cinco de Mayo become a Mexican St. Patrick’s Day! Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of publicity about the celebration for it. Chicago had a Cinco de Mayo parade downtown on the same day as the Polish Constitution Day parade. Personally, I don’t understand why anyone would celebrate Cinco de Mayo. On May 5, 1862, Mexicans defeated the French at Puebla, just west of Mexico City. However, the Mexicans then went on to lose the war and were ruled by the French until 1862. Is this cause for celebration?
I don’t know why, but I always wanted to learn Spanish. Although Spanish was my first language, I wanted to study Spanish formally in school. I wanted to read and write in Spanish, too, in addition to English. Both my father and mother spoke Spanish, but they grew up in different regions of Mexico so they each spoke a dialect that was different enough from each other to sometimes confuse me. But I knew enough Spanish to communicate with just about anyone. When selecting my classes freshman year at Divine Heart Seminary, I picked Spanish I. The counselor looked at me suspiciously, which I didn’t understand why at the time. It never occurred to me that anyone would think I was trying to get an easy A. After the first Spanish class, Señor Mordini, the Spanish teacher, asked me why I was in Spanish I. I panicked, thinking that he wouldn’t let me take Spanish. I told him that I wanted to learn to read and write Spanish. He told me that I didn’t belong in that Spanish class. He was moving me ahead to Spanish II. I resisted. I told him that I wasn’t ready, but he insisted, and since I would still be in a Spanish class, I agreed. In my sophomore year, I enrolled for Spanish III and French I. No one understood why I wanted to study two foreign languages. I had always wanted to know many languages. I learned a lot of Spanish with Señor Mordini, more than enough to read and write in Spanish. Plus, I was learning French, too.
At Thanksgiving break, my mother finally agreed to let me leave the seminary; I never wanted to attend the seminary in the first place. However, she didn’t let me enroll in a private Catholic high school as I had expected. I attended a Chicago public school in the Canaryville neighborhood called Tilden Technical High School. Since I transferred in the middle of the academic year and from a private school to a public one, the counselors had problems scheduling classes for me. I insisted that I wanted to take Spanish. The counselor told me, “But you know Spanish!” I said, “But I can’t read and write Spanish.” I persisted and the counselor finally put me in Spanish IV. I was very disappointed the first day of Spanish class because the Spanish teacher taught verb conjugations that most high school students learn in the first year. This class was really behind. After the first Spanish class, the Spanish teacher took me down to the counselor’s office and said that I knew too much Spanish to be in her class. She was afraid I would intimidate the rest of the students. I insisted that I wanted to take Spanish. I even offered to go into a higher level class if necessary, but that was the highest level Spanish class, even though they were so far behind. I really wanted to learn to read and write Spanish I told them. They insisted I already knew Spanish. “No, I don’t,” I said. “Why do I have to take English?” I asked. “I already know English.” “You don’t know English!” the counselor told me. “That’s the same reason I want to take Spanish. I don’t know Spanish,” I said. Well, I lost that argument, but the counselor couldn’t figure out how to fill the void left by the Spanish IV that I wasn’t allowed to take. I said I wanted to take French. “But why?” the counselor asked in disbelief. “You don’t have to take a foreign language. This school doesn’t have a foreign language requirement!” “I want to take French,” I insisted. “I took French I this term at my last school.” Finally, the counselor looks for a French class. “You’ll have to take French III,” she said. “It’s the only French class that fits in your schedule.”
I was glad to at least have a chance to learn a foreign language. At first, I was afraid to say I wasn’t ready for French III, but then I remembered how far behind the Spanish IV class was. However, I wasn’t ready for what I was about to experience. The first day of class, I walk in and greet my classmates, “Bon jour!” My classmates stared at me with their mouths hanging open. It was as if I were speaking a foreign language to them. I soon discovered why. Our French teacher Mr. Hansen never actually spoke French in class. Ever! He didn’t actually teach anything, either. He was a rotund, middle-aged man with gray, balding hair who never had very much energy. He showed up to class on time wearing a suit and tie and sat at his desk at the front of the class while the class discussed everything going on their personal lives. If Mr. Hansen found the conversation interesting, he would occasionally join in. The students didn’t mind since he wasn’t a very demanding teacher. I started at Tilden near the end of November and in December, the students were worried about their French III grade because the marking period was rapidly approaching. Mr. Hansen reassured us that we were all passing. Then, he made the big announcement. After Christmas vacation, the teachers were going on strike, so we wouldn’t have classes for about a month or two. After the strike, Mr. Hansen planned to have his annual heart attack and he wouldn’t return to school until after spring break. And he kept his word, too. The succession of substitute teachers taught us French just as competently as Mr. Hansen even though none of them had ever studied French! When Mr. Hansen returned to school in April, he said he would have to test us in order to give us our final French grade. The class panicked. No one wanted to study. Then Mr. Hansen announced that in order to get an A, you had to bring in your French-English dictionary to class. I just happened to have mine with me–I always brought it with me just in case we actually studied French in class by some unexpected miracle–and all the class glared at me in disgust. Well, I had my instant A, but the rest of the class was worried. This was French III and no one had ever bought a French-English dictionary! Silly me! I bought mine immediately after the first day of French I!
Then, my mother bought a house near Marquette Park and I had to transfer to Gage Park High School the next year. When scheduling my classes, I knew better than to ask to study a foreign language. So I didn’t enroll for one. Some time during the end of the year, the Spanish teacher, Señor Martinez from Ecuador, came to one of my classes and asked me to step into the hallway. He was recruiting Spanish-speaking students for a special Spanish class that he himself would teach the next year. I told him about what had happened to me at Tilden and he reassured me that this class would be different. So, against my better judgment, I enroll in his class. The next year, I was actually excited to go my Spanish class because I would finally learn to read and write Spanish fluently. On the first day of class, I see a lot of my friends who are native Spanish speakers. The classroom is filled with Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Ecuadorians, Filipinos, and others. Then, Miss Brewer walks into the classroom and announces that she is our teacher! What? She wasn’t a native speaker of Spanish. The entire class was disappointed. What happened to Señor Martinez? Miss Brewer repeated that she was our Spanish teacher and that was the end of the discussion. That would have been fine except for the fact that most of the class spoke better Spanish than her. But she insisted that she knew Spanish because she had spent a month in Puerto Rico the previous summer. Spanish was our worst class for most of us that year. Apparently, no one in the class knew Spanish, according to Miss Brewer. Hardly anyone got an A for the class and a few native Spanish speakers actually failed!
When I finally arrived at UIC, I was hesitant to take Spanish, but I told myself, “It’s now or never!” I took a Spanish placement test, which is multiple choice. I scored very poorly because I would choose the answer according to what I remembered hearing in Spanish. Apparently, much of what I had heard was improper usage. Then, I had to take another placement exam in the Spanish department. I was told to write in Spanish about why I wanted to study Spanish. It had been years since I had written anything in Spanish. I surprised myself when I wrote. Some things came back to me instinctively. I was placed in the first semester in a class for bilingual speakers. Finally, I would learn to read and write Spanish!
So you’re studying Spanish in high school or college. Is Spanish class easy or hard for you? Do you wonder what you can use all that Spanish that you learned? Or, are you afraid that you will forget all your Spanish after the last exam? Well, my friend Mike (he doesn’t actually know I exist, but I like to attach myself to successful people) used his one semester of Spanish very successfully. The One semester of Spanish Spanish Love Song on YouTube.com has more than one-million hits. It’s very popular. I found it by accident on YouTube.com one day while procrastinating instead of grading compositions. I must have listened to it about twenty times before I actually got back to grading compositions. Then, I sent the link to the video to all of my Spanish students. They loved it. And just for grins and giggles, I also sent it the UIC Department of Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese. I wasn’t sure how all these professors at a research university would react to such a silly video as this. Was I ever surprised! One Spanish professor even suggested making it our department theme song. That is, until a French professor then sent a link for a similar song in French, which she suggested become the official department theme song. Not to be outdone, an Italian professor sent a link for a very lame video by what appeared to be some extremely inebriated Italian 101 students sputtering Italian infinitives. No word from the Portuguese section yet since we don’t actually have a Portuguese professor. Well, here’s the link to YouTube.com in case you’re interested in watching “The One Semester of Spanish Spanish Love Song”:
Here are the lyrics to “Spanish Love Song.” Granted they’re not profound and they don’t provide any new insights to the meaning of life, but they are fun to hear. I love all of the non sequitors. You can actually learn some Spanish listening to Spanish Love Song. Who ever said learning Spanish isn’t fun?
Spanish Love Song
¿Cómo te llamas?
Me llamo Mike.
Me llamo Mike.
¿Dónde está el baño?
¿Qué hora es?
¿Qué hora es?
La ra ra ra ra
Me gusta la biblioteca.
Vivo en la casa roja.
Yo tengo dos bicicletas.
Muchas gracias y de nada.
¿Cuántos años tienes?
Un momento,por favor.
It’s “The One Semester of Spanish
Spanish Love Song.”
Mi mamá es bonita.
Mi gato es muy blanco.
La ra ra ra ra
Uno, dos, tres y cuatro.
Cinco, seis, siete, ocho.
No remembro how to say eleven.
y Cinnamon Twists.
It’s “The One Semester of Spanish
Spanish Love Song.”
I hope you enjoy this video. So you see? Spanish is a very fun language. Please share it with everyone who teaches or studies Spanish!
I love the movie Napoleon Dynamite with Jon Heder so much that I’ve seen it at least twenty times. I saw it for the first time because my oldest son wanted me to rent it from Blockbuster. I thought I would end up seeing it all by myself as when I’ve rented other movies for him that he really, really wanted to see, like the Lords of Dogtown–and I ended up watching it alone, which I really loved by the way!
Anyway, I knew I had to own Napoleon Dynamite on DVD! When it first came out on DVD, it was only available at a clothing store called Hot Topic. Once I bought it, my twins started watching it repeatedly because they loved the movie, too. Well, I couldn’t walk by the TV without stopping to watch Napoleon and his misadventures. So, I watched it repeatedly along with my sons. Once we watched the movie all the way to the end and I told my sons not to start it over until I had read the credits; I don’t why, but I like to read the credits to see who the key grip is. (This goes back to the days of my youth when my friends Jim, Vito, and I would go to show and sit through all the credits so we could applaud for the key grip.) So, after the credits were completely over–yes, I read them all–there was another scene in which Kip marries LaFawnduh! My sons and I were pleasantly surprised!
Of course, this made me wonder what other surprises were in store for us on the rest of the DVD. Surprise, surprise! Not only does the DVD have subtitles in Spanish and French, but the movie is also dubbed in Spanish! I started watching it with Napoleon speaking Spanish, but my non-Spanish-speaking-Mexican sons wouldn’t watch it in Spanish!
Anyway, sometimes the topic of the movie Napoleon Dynamite comes up in Spanish class because the new student Pedro at Napoleon’s high school is Mexican. I often tell my students that they should watch the movie in Spanish someday. I was planning to watch it all the way through in Spanish one day. Since I’m always open to suggestions in Spanish class, last week, a student recommended that we Napoleon Dynamite in Spanish. I agreed if we didn’t use the subtitles. They resisted, but I insisted. Then, we reached a compromise: We would watch the movie dubbed in Spanish with Spanish subtitles. Since the students were fourth semester Spanish students and most had already seen the movie, I knew they would understand the action and plot development of the movie. I was amazed at how much the students laughed!
Napoleon Dynamite is much funnier in Spanish, especially when Napoleon says, “¡Idiota!” I was wondering how they would translate words like “liger,” which is half-lion, half-tiger. Well, Napoleon says that he’s drawing his favorite animal, “el legre,” which is “medio león, medio tigre.” However, lost in the translation is, “But my lips hurt really bad!”, which is translated as, “Pero mis labios están resecos” and Pedro’s “Maybe I’ll build her a cake or something.” The Spanish used is standard Spanish and doesn’t really capture the slangy colloquialisms of high school teenagers.
Also, the subtitles don’t always match the Spanish dubbing. In the beginning Napoleon says, “¡Rayos!”, but in the subtitles, we read, “¡Cielos!” Obviously, there were two translators at work. Overall, the Spanish captures the feel of the original movie. I would recommend for all Spanish teacher to watch this movie with their high school or college students in Spanish. It was definitely a very entertaining way to reinforce some of the Spanish lessons learned in class.
Well, I’ve been thinking about all of my lifelong goals and how I haven’t completed most of them. There are so many things I have yet to do. I’ve started so many things that I’ve forgotten to go back to them to finish them. I’ve started writing several novels, but haven’t gotten past the opening lines. I have actually almost already finished a comedy play. Of course, I’ve been working on it for 25 years now. However, I’m almost done editing it. Really! I have about eighty pages and it’s almost done. Any day now!
But I have a lot of other things that I haven’t finished either. I have a utility sink in the basement that I probably won’t install before I sell the house. I have a set of French books so I can learn French some day. Ditto for the Italian and Latin books. I have an unopened jigsaw puzzle of the John Hancock building when it was the world’s tallest building. I’m almost done with my website that I started four years ago. NOT!