On First and Second Languages – III

In the first post of this series, I described my relationship with English and Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani; in the second, that with German. The story in today’s post–that of Spanish in my life–is similar to the German tale: partial fluency, a long-standing, constantly procastinated commitment to formal study. The distinctive contrast lies in the nature of the fluency: in German, I possess some grammatical foundation coupled with a poor vocabulary; in Spanish, my vocabulary outstrips my grammatical foundation.

But back to the beginning. After I moved to the US in 1987, I lived in Elizabeth, New Jersey and attended graduate school in Newark. Elizabeth had a sizable Colombian and Cuban population (they were prominent members of its local Hispanic demographic). Newark’s Hispanic population was also considerable. There were, therefore, ample opportunities to pick up some Spanish. So I did; I read a lot of store signs, browsed Spanish-language newspapers, and acquired a small smattering of sentences and words to use in interactions with Spanish speakers (something as trivial as ‘tiene cambio para un dollar?’ was very useful when catching the bus in the mornings).  But I never learned how to conjugate verbs.

My opportunities to learn Spanish only increased after I moved to New York City in 1993, but I continued to make one crucial mistake: I did not take a class in Spanish to bolster the vocabulary, context, immersion and daily practice that was available to me. I prided myself on reading subway advertisements; I received praise for my pronunciation from native Spanish speakers (some consonant sounds in Spanish are similar to those in Hindi/Urdu, as are the rolled ‘r’ and the soft ‘d’); I sometimes helped tourists and immigrants who could not speak English with a Spanish sentence or two after they had sought help from me (assuming that I was Hispanic because of my appearance).   But verb conjugation remained a mystery.

I traveled to Spanish-speaking countries: Spain, Ecuador, Peru (twice), Puerto Rico. My wife, whose Spanish is more advanced than mine–yes, because of those damned verb conjugations–and who had used it during her work as a community organizer in East Harlem (Spanish Harlem, El Barrio) was our primary interface with the ‘natives.’ My Spanish improved during these trips; I picked up more words, more sentences, and used it more extensively in a variety of interactions.  I even attempted to learn a bit of Spanish formally; I browsed some guidebooks; attempted some drills; and even took a short afternoon class in Quito, Ecuador. But it wasn’t enough, and wait for it, my conjugation of verbs was still non-existent.

The problem with not being able to conjugate verbs is that you cannot form sentences; you can have a great vocabulary at your disposal, but you cannot employ it if you cannot conjugate verbs. It’s really as simple as that.

As in the case of German, I have made many plans to learn Spanish formally, but something or the other has pushed it off. Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I have taken a closer look at duolingo.com and finished one level of practice; perhaps this time, I’ll stick to my guns and get the damn conjugations right.

Desearme suerte!

2 comments on “On First and Second Languages – III

  1. […] mastered languages and my frustrating relationships with them, I’ve written about German and Spanish. Today, I come to the most vexed alliance of all, the one with […]

  2. […] The reasons are quite straightforward, and as might be expected, not exceedingly deep. They are only interesting because, I, like many others who watch Spanish-language broadcasts of the 2014 World Cup, do not speak Spanish. (At least, my Spanish has never risen above some minimal fluency.) […]

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