Monday, January 03, 2011

Learning Spanish

My Spanish learning is coming along fairly nicely. I still can't understand most spoken Spanish (Hable muy lento, por favor... ¡soy un principiante!), but given a little time to examine, I can understand a significant amount of written Spanish.

I'm using and BBC Languages ("mi vida loca"). The BBC's lessons are free and more entertaining, but don't teach as much; and you can learn a lot on for free if you rely on peer review. Livemocha is sort of a low-quality version of Rosetta Stone, without a computer to check your pronounciation, with lazy translations (e.g. "entregando" translated as "giving" [dando] instead of "deliver", "submit" or "surrender"; "tomando" translated as "eat" [comer] instead of "taking in" which would be more accurate), and poor teaching practices: failing to introduce the gender of many new nouns, failing to introduce the infinitive form of new verbs, and using present continuous probably far more than real Spanish speakers do. Plus there is absolutely no explanation of spelling rules, grammar rules, or differences between different Spanish-speaking countries. And their word choices seem off; for example they always use "automóvil" for a car instead of the more common "coche" or "carro". Still, when combined with other sources of information such as this grammar tutorial and verb reference, you can learn a lot from Livemocha.

I wish they'd focus on breadth rather than depth though. Livemocha seems to have introduced three or four verbs each that all mean "take" and "put", two words each for "pour", "hair", "hot" and "rough"... and after dozens of lessons they still haven't introduced important words such as: make (as in, he makes me happy!), know, learn, seem, understand, find, hear, say, try, maybe, probably, together, too much, slow, therefore/so, if.... They also haven't introduced conversational phrases such as "I don't understand", "I know/I don't know", "anything else?", "say again?", "pleased to meet you", "How much does it cost?", "The bill please", "for example", "my name is ____", "come here", "let's go", "how do you say?", "wow", "yay", "really?", "are you sure?", etc.

After studying Esperanto awhile, I realized that you can express a good percentage of your thoughts with only a few hundred words--but when it comes to natural languages, which are a minefield of ambiguity and strange rules, only someone that knows the language well can choose "safe" words that are not likely to cause confusion. For example, in Spanish there are at least two words for "hot", "caluroso" and "caliente", used in different contexts. If you only have time to learn one of those words, which one should you learn? I heard that if a person is described as "caliente", it means horny. Hot food is supposed to be described as "caliente", but if it also means horny, it's probably better to teach beginners "caluroso" and risk that they will call food "caluroso", rather than risk that they will ask a woman if she is "caliente". ¡¿Qué?!

Google translate constantly ticks me off for various reasons. Its dictionary, for example. Quite often there is one very good translation for a word, for example, "difícil" means "difficult". But when you put "difícil" in Google translate, it offers "difficult" first plus 18 other possibilities: hard, tough, tricky, complicated, awkward, arduous, problem, painful, heavy, delicate, difficile, grave, picky, off-putting, complicative, tender, wild, touch-and-go. Damn it, I want a translation, not a thesaurus. Most of these translations are very misleading, of course. Rocks are "hard", Leather is "tough", magicians are "tricky", women are "complicated", nerds are "awkward", circumcisions are "painful", and pidgeons are "wild", but probably "difícil" is the wrong translation in all of these cases. When they give me 19 possibilities, how am I supposed to know which ones are important enough to worry about? Because "difícil" is spelled like "difficult", it's probably safe to assume that "difficult" is the only translation that matters. But what if the word had been something unrecognizable like "falpike"--how would I know which translations are relevant? Spanish-English dictionaries, I fear, might be even worse than Esperanto-English ones. And not only is the dictionary terrible, Google's translation engine sucks and cannot be trusted either, but I have better things to do right now than to investigate why.

Oh dictionary writers, why don't you give some examples that would clearly show what a word means in different contexts? Or why not explain with complete sentences? Especially on the internet, you have enough space.

Anyway, I plan to make a new version of my Spanish Quick Reference that incorporates some corrections, some new words, and a third page with common conjugations of 25 verbs. I might have to expand it to four pages actually; perhaps I'll dedicate a page to examples or something.

1 comment:

Trudie said...

You might want to youtube my first-semester-Spanish Spanish love song. It'll give you a laugh.