Tag: foreign language

Keep Talking

For a culture steeped in Catholic fatalism — and with a history that includes everything from racial discrimination to economic injustice to death squads — Hispanics sure are an optimistic bunch. I’ve written before about this weird tendency to be positive in the face of disaster. But now I have scientific proof for it.

A recent study says that people who speak Spanish tend to express themselves in a more positive way than speakers of other languages do. The researchers found that “the selection of positive words was greatest among Spanish-speakers” and that those words tend to be “learned more easily, used more frequently and are considered more meaningful.” In addition, overall communication among Spanish-speakers tended to be more positive, and the emotional content of the Spanish language was the highest among the languages studied.

talking

Basically, a conversation in Spanish is more optimistic and heartfelt than it would be in English, even if the content is exactly the same. And you don’t even want to know how much more upbeat Spanish is in comparison to German or Arabic (the alpha and omega of harsh languages).

But it’s not all good news for Hispanics. And here I am part of the problem. I’ve been honest about my struggles with Spanish, and I consider myself passable at the language, at best.

Well, another study has shown that, sure enough, each successive generation of Latinos is less proficient in Spanish. While 92% of the second generation (children of immigrants, like me) speak English very well, only 82% are even conversational in Spanish. By the third generation, nearly 100% of Latinos speak English very well, but only 17% speak Spanish fluently.

So all that optimism will fade away if we don’t teach kids Spanish. Now that’s a pessimistic thought.

 


Think Different

According to many sources, Dr. Carlos do Amaral Freire can speak more languages — 115 — than anyone alive. But before you feel too intimidated, keep in mind that the professor is fluent in a mere 30 or so.

One has to wonder how balancing all those verb tenses and irregular conjugations has affected his mind (although as we know, people who speak multiple languages have more agile brains). In fact, there is some evidence that the languages we speak influence the very way we think.

To continue reading this post, please click here.

 


Great News for Your Brain

It’s good to be bi.

Wait, let’s try that intro again. You’ll have to forgive me. I’m not sufficiently bilingual to be dazzling all the time and avoid slip-ups, malapropisms, and brain freezes. In fact, if I spoke Spanish better, I would be a lot more confident of fighting off Alzheimer’s as I get older.

At least that’s the conclusion of “neuroscience researchers [who] are increasingly coming to a consensus that bilingualism has many positive consequences for the brain.”

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Nobody Speaks English Anymore!

I’m going to make a bold, even confrontational, assertion: My English is better than yours.

I’m not saying that it’s perfect. If you dig through my posts, I’m sure you’ll find a grammatical error or two. In general, however, I have a solid grasp of the fundamentals. Considering that I make my living as a writer, editor, and copyeditor, I should know my independent clauses from my subjunctive tenses.

In any case, I bring this up to make clear that I have a deep love of English. Having said that, I don’t see why we need to make it our national language.

Now at this point, many readers may object and sputter, “But English is already our official language!”

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Despacio, Por Favor

As I wrote in my last post, my interest in learning Spanish has been renewed. My hope is that by chipping away for a few hours each week, I will regain my long-lost fluency.

My studying recently consisted of an attempt to watch Spanish television. Flicking on the station at random, I caught the last fifteen minutes of what appeared to be a Mexican version of the “Jerry Springer Show.”

On the program, an older couple confronted their young adult daughter about her lifestyle. At one point, the parents really let her have it over some shameful behavior.

Evidently, the woman had sex with four men in one month. Or she had a walrus for lunch. I was unsure because, like I said, my Spanish is poor. Then it became impossible to track what was going on because they all started yelling at each other. The body language, however, was easy to translate.

Besides diminishing my already low opinion of human nature, the program also intimidated me. Listening to native Spanish speakers roll out rapid-fire questions and declarations verified how much I have to relearn. Up to that point, I felt pretty confident about understanding basic sentences. But the furious accusations on the show were far removed from the leisurely paced, innocuous dialogues on my Spanish-class podcasts.

The brilliant David Sedaris has pointed out the surreal nature of learning a new language as an adult. He writes that the conversations used in language courses “steer clear of slang and controversy. Avoiding both the past and the future, they embrace the moment with a stoicism common to Buddhists and recently recovered alcoholics.”

Yes, it’s quite a leap from comprehending someone’s observation that the sky is blue to understanding what that guy is screaming about at the top of his lungs. I guess I’ll have to watch more Spanish television to fully get it.

But for now, I’m taking a break from Univision. Instead, I plan to watch the sublime “Pan’s Labyrinth” without the English subtitles. I think that will go a lot better.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqYiSlkvRuw&hl=en_US&fs=1&]


Bilingual Curious

All the members of my family speak Spanish better than I do. Some of them were born in Latin America, which gives them an unfair advantage. Others took to studying the language when they were younger, while I was busy mastering “Ms. Pac-Man.”

Regardless, I am now in solid adulthood and burdened with a foreign-language aptitude that can only be described as muy malo. I could easily let it go, because despite the shrill warnings of xenophobes, English is not going away anytime soon.

After all, English is the lingua franca of American pop culture, international business, and the internet. Nobody has achieved success in America without knowing at least some English. And people from Mexico to India to China are learning that it’s in their best interests to study the language.

So with English firmly ensconced, why should I, or anyone, bother to learn Spanish?

Well, first, there is the practical aspect. According to the U.S Census Bureau, about 12 percent of U.S. residents speak Spanish at home. They range from adults who don’t know any English to little kids who are perfectly bilingual. Within this range are millions of Americans who prefer to communicate in Spanish.

At some point, you will need to talk to someone who will throw a cascade of trilled R’s at you. It will happen. And when it does, gesturing randomly or yelling louder in English will not work. Even if the situation is not critical, your feelings of helplessness will be profound.

A second reason for learning Spanish is pure economics. Among the few booming occupations are jobs where Spanish is considered a plus, if not an outright requirement. Both the blue-collar construction worker and the white-collar marketing manager are learning that it’s smart to know the difference between “Lo siento” and “Claro que se.” In these recessionary times, a little awareness of Spanish can be the difference between landing the gig or spending another day watching soaps.

In addition to these practical matters, there is the fact that we are a multicultural society. We have always been a multicultural society, in truth. It just is no longer possible to wall ourselves off and demand that everyone acquiesce to the majority’s needs. Showing respect for other cultures, and gaining a basic understanding and empathy of others, is becoming a necessary skill – not a luxury for do-gooders.

Finally, exercising your brain and learning something new will never hurt you. So don’t worry.

Of course, for me, there is another, more personal reason. Growing up Latino without a firm grasp of Spanish is culturally confusing. It gets into messy questions of identity and authenticity, and we all love addressing those issues as middle age closes in.

So I’m going to hit the books and internet sites. When I get up to speed again, maybe I’ll take an intermediate class. It will take weeks, perhaps months, before I’m ready to tackle a conversation with a native speaker. When it comes, and I stutter past the initial “Buenos dias,” it will be a sublime breakthrough.


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