Monday, July 20, 2009

put it on my card

"[His coach] incorporated beds, dining facilities and a library. Such [coaches] were designed not only to free the traveller from the discomfort of public transport but also to display wealth, status, technological superiority and, as John Ruskin put it, to achieve 'the abashing of plebian beholders.'"

When I read that portion of The Economist's book review of The Smell of the Continent: The British Discover Europe, I was positive the reviewer was discussing some latter-day motor homeowner. Caravans to Normandy -- and all that, what what.

But I was wrong.

The coach described is Lord Byron's. I find it somewhat amusing that even in the early nineteenth century, Byron would pack up his own peculiar vision of This Sceptred Isle while trundling off on The Grand Tour.

I chuckled imagining the author of The Destruction of Semnacherib, scratching out his iambic pentameter on the equivalent of a Winnebago captain's chair.

My middle brow tendencies are exacerbated by the mere mention of Lord Byron's name. It is hard to get Ogden Nash's Very Like a Whale rhymes out of your mind once they are ensconced. And, far as I know, Ogden Nash never sat in a Winnebago -- nineteenth or twentieth century versions.

All of this musing on motor homes, Byron, and Nash started on Sunday afternoon when I realized I am creating a project dilemma for myself -- and I see no way out of it.

I am starting to take my Spanish lessons more seriously. Merely going to class one hour a day, three days a week is not getting me where I need to be with the language.

The positive side is that I am having some conversations with Marta where we actually pass information. Our conversation about the king snake (la culebra) was fun and filled with malapropisms.

And I am wading around in nouns and verbs at the shallow end of the pool with the local merchants. Sometimes even getting my face in the water. That is something.

But the only way I am going to develop any proficiency is to start applying some of the suggestions I have picked up from Mexico Bob.

He suggested a thrifty (and effective) way to expand vocabulary. I modified it a bit by purchasing some 3x5 index cards and a recipe size box.

I then spent Saturday and a good part of Sunday writing Spanish words and phrases (in maroon) on one side of the card with the English translation (in blue) on the other side.

I learned in law school that if I hear something, write it down, and write it down again, I will retain it -- as long as I then put the information to use. Back then, it was case law. Now, it is Spanish case and tense.

Tedious? You bet. I can tell when I am losing my effectiveness: I start mixing up my colors for the two languages. That also mean I am not retaining the new words.

I wish I had started this method when I began my classes. But I was not certain what to expect from the in-class time.

Once I get caught up with the prior class notes this week, I can then reduce each new day's words to cards on the evening of the class itself.

On Monday we are going to start conjugating the verbs "to be" and "to say." That will give my analytical mind a target.

The dilemma is: until I get my cards created, I am not going to have time to get away from the house. (I will confess that I have been catching up on some of my magazines.)

And, after I get the cards done, I am going to need to devote more time to studying. But, I also know, I cannot make Spanish my sole occupation for the next few months.

The moment I try that, I will be jumping in Lord Byron'
s motor home and heading north across the border where culebra is just another word for nothing else to lose.


American Mommy in Mexico said...

Wow - way to jump on Bob's suggestion!

Steve Cotton said...

AMM -- We shall see how well it works.

Nancy said...

One thing I would suggest since you are in the early days of doing this is that you separate your words into nouns, verbs, adjectives/adverbs, and phrases.

I have a kajillion cards and they are all a jumble.

Also, when you have them really learned, put those cards aside in your learned pile then you can just check on them once in a while.

There's an app for the Mac I'm using now called Keep Your Word. It is a vocabulary manager, you enter the words and definitions yourself and it can test you and make flash cards, etc. I am really trying to keep it up to date and quiz myself a lot. But the paper flash cards are great, I keep them in my purse and will go through them in the car or while we wait for things.

Larry in Mazatlan said...

Conjugating the verb "to be," huh? The conjugation is easy, but you're going to be spending a whole lot of time of the use of both. Time well spent, to avoid some sticky situations.


Charley said...

Steve, you're a great guy. Your literary references are amazing.
But THIS! This is embarassing.
You did not retire to sit inside and shuffle index cards. Who wears the leash in your household?
You or Jiggs? Resign yourself to the fact that you will be making a fool of yourself but just get out and start talking to people, in Spanish.
The counter-bash can begin now.

Houston TX

Felipe said...

The index cards are a very good idea. A teacher in my language school in Morelia suggested that long ago, and I did it. I ended up with a pile that was over a foot high. I still have most of them. My wife is using them in reverse to improve her English. Well, to try to, at least.

Steve Cotton said...

Nancy -- Good idea. I am not worried about getting my grammar perfect. I will be happy just getting some more words into my vocabulary. I tack sentences together and realize I have no idea of the word for the subject of my sentence. And it is usually a very easy word.

Charley -- I do not have the discipline to be leashed to anything. But I need to have something in the bank to spend. If I know no words, I may as well try using my Greek or Russian to try speaking to the local merchants. I tried that on Saturday with Marta; it did not work well.

Calypso said...

Good idea (of Bob's) to write the words - read the newspaper - watch some Spanish speaking movies (the real Spanish ones are great - checkout El Mariachi and the original Frida [Frida, naturaleza viva (1986) ]) - use Google translate when reading the local newspaper - makes it fun.

Anonymous said...

Clever Byon picture in the motor home.


Steve Cotton said...

Felipe -- Thanks for the testimonial. It takes quite a bit of work. Nice to know there are results.

Calypso -- Being able to communicate is its best fun reward.

Horst -- Thanks. I am happy you got it. I thought of you and your poetic (teutonic) tendencies when I posted it.

Bob Mrotek said...

Good for you Steve. I am happy that you have embarked on your adventure in Spanish and set your course on the far horizon. All ahead full and steady as she goes Mr. Sulu :)

Charley said...

2 high school girls put spanish vocabulary words on a shower curtain, marketed it, and made a bundle. Available at Target for $20
check it out online at

Houston TX

Ruth said...

I am also studying Spanish and just wanted to add to this conversation. My class of four is learning 'ser' and 'estar' right now and having to translate sentences using the correct verb and tense. Writing everything down really does help you to remember the words. I saw Mexico Bob's advice about the cards and have my pile of blank cards ready to go.

Steve Cotton said...

Bob -- Thanks for the idea. I needed some sort of system to organize all of this information. Once I have more words under my belt, I can try the newspaper/movie ideas.

Charley -- I was wondering what type of studying one could do in the shower. I am usually in and out in about three minutes. Then I saw the answer: teenagers. Another problem. I do not have a shower curtain. Like many Mexican showers, mine is simply an open space with a shower head.

Anonymous said...

"'"the abashing of plebian beholders"'"

For a long time now, I have suspected you of having latent tendencies toward Economic Royalism, and here, finally, in the guise of quoting someone else quoting someone else, you have reveal your true elitist self!

You are exposed, Admiral Vanderbilt, for finally what you are!

On another topic:

One of the best reading teachers I ever encountered during my teaching days was Frank Irola from Tacoma. He worked with untouchables -- kids convicted and incarcerated for bad crimes. Frank saw these kids as humans and as having come to the system with "smashed up" hearts and minds. He wanted to help heal them as best he could and he did this by teaching them reading. (most couldn't read)

His approach was simple. As the kid what book he wanted to read (didn't matter whether it was the Little Train that Could or Plato's Republic) he got that book and he and the kid, literally arm in arm, would start on page 1, line one, to read the book.

Frank kept a stack of smaller sized note-cards by his side when they read together. And at each new word, causing the kid trouble, he would stop, write down the word on the card, and on the other side, give its meaning. As the kid progressed through "his" book, he would begin to pile up these cards (his treasure of knowledge objectively growing before his eyes). Frank would eventually get the student to the 4th grade reading level, the level, he told us, where an independent reader can then take off on her own.

My suggestion, for what it is worth, is for you to find a 4th grade level Spanish book, and to begin to read it, with your note cards at hand. But remember, you won't be doing this alone, you'll have the arm of Frank Irola around your shoulder encouraging you on -- one of the really great unknown educator souls.


glorv1 said...

Good luck. It might have been better if you had embarked on this journey of learning Spanish long ago when you knew you were moving to Mexico Lindo. You would have had a year or more to learn the language and your retirement would be what it's supposed to be, kick back and relax and enjoy. Either way, please do that and my best to Jiggs.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy all your posts Steve. I just read a Canuck in Cancun. Her description of her adventures fill me with the desire to be in the Yucatan again! It is the most amazing place. Never a shortage of adventures and interesting people. You can practice your Spanish there! Your next move you need people, excitement, adventures, ruins, cenotes, underground rivers, exploring, hiking etc. I don't see the need to sweat to death, eating alone and being starved for intelligent conversation. I think your blog is awesome and you are staying connected to some incredible people. I wake up each morning and head for my computer to read your blogs. You never disappoint me. There is always something new! The lifestyle you are currently leading can lead to stagnation and depression. Get out as soon as you can and move on to your next wonderful adventure. Life is short and you only get one chance at living. Do it each and every day!

Steve Cotton said...

Gloria -- Attempting to learn Spanish in Salem was as successful as attempting to learn scuba diving in the Sahara. It just did not work. And this dreadful (not unexpected) weather is not helping me to stay focused on much of anything.

Steve Cotton said...

Anonymous -- You left off the snakes and bugs. My trips to the Yucatan have always been made far more interesting by the number of things I have seen that put life and limb at risk. That may not be to everyone's taste, but for me, it is a positive. The largest boa constrictor I have ever seen in the wild was sleeping across the main path to a major archaeological site. I found him to be more interesting than the Disneyland-like 1920s "reconstruction" of the site.

Jan said...

I think this is great Steve, and my pearl of wisdom is - do whatever works for you. I have spent 8 years dabbling in Spanish and I am ashamed to say that I am not fluent because I have allowed myself to be embarrassed about my grammar etc. Just do it. It sounds like you have achieved a lot academically in your lifetime (so far) so you definitely have the skills to learn Spanish well. I would even predict that you will write well in Spanish, which, by the way is an important exercise as well. Good luck Steve.

Steve Cotton said...

Jan -- I am usually great at written translation -- especially in Latin-based languages. Whenever I have trouble understanding a word, I will ask the person to write it down. Nine out of ten times, I can figured it out. But that does not work very well in my village where the illiteracy rate is very high. Oral languages are always a bit skewed. We do it in English -- a lot.

1st Mate said...

Steve - I see you have the same verb book I have. I finally broke down and started doing what was advised in the Introduction of that book: study the front and back pages. I've just started and I already know participles and progressives (or re-know them, as I'm sure I knew them in high school). By the way, the cards are going to be an ongoing process, you may never get them done as there will always be new words to learn.

holly said...

Usted quiere aprender español. Usted toma clases y lo enseña.

Anonymous said...

Hola Steve,

Well, I find moving from Lord Byron's special train car to studying Spanish to "where culebra is just another word for nothing else to lose" hysterical. LOL... You definitely have an amusing blog.

As for language learning, I've personally more or less mastered Spanish, though I never stop learning and improving. And there are good days and bad days.

Now I have started to learn the accordion. Upon starting in May, I had all kinds of visions of playing wild Mexican Norteños, jazzy tangos, and other interesting music. So I found a tutor, who is a very accomplished musician. "Well enough," he said to me. "But it's best if we start with these books I have." So now I am slowly working myself though very simple music, music which has been selected to exercise certain fingers, teach certain movements, etc. Perhaps humiliatingly enough, all the music and exercises are “decorated” with drawings designed to appeal to 8-year olds. But I plod through, and listen to my teacher who assures me that I am building a good foundation to eventually be able to play “real” music. So I continue.

And like learning Spanish, there are good accordion days, and bad ones. For example, last Saturday I could barely play at all for some reason. And there are days when I can barely speak Spanish. Other days I can babble all day long.

So, learning Spanish is a lot like learning a musical instrument. Judging by your written prose, you are already in the 99th percentile of English speakers. So I'm sure you dream of making witty puns in Spanish, or heartfelt pleas, or elaborately clever turns of phrase.

Unfortunately, you're going to have to start at literally ground zero. Don't get discouraged, just remember it's a lot like learning to play an instrument, and it will require daily, persistent practice. And like learning an instrument, it’s unreasonable to expect to be able to “perform” all that impressively before you’ve been at it a couple years.

Personally, I have found learning entire sentences that I wanted to say to someone to be particularly helpful. So you need to find someone you want to talk to, and then rehearse comments in your mind.

You can do it! We're all eagerly supporting you.

Fond regards,

Kim G
Boston, Ma
Where there is a sad dearth of Mexican accordion players.
P.S. Just as a warning, you should perhaps know that there are two verbs in Spanish that translate to “to be.” Learning which one to use when is part of the adventure. To date, there are times I’m still not sure which.
P.P.S. I recommend Spanish Verb Tenses by Dorothy Devney Richmond, ISBN 0-8442-7334-1. That was the book my Spanish tutor and I used on our year-long forced march through Spanish verb tenses. Each chapter has a lesson, and then exercises you can do in the book. It was definitely a somewhat boring year, but I learned what I needed to know, and now the subjunctive falls trippingly off my tongue.

Anonymous said...

Yikes, when I saw the picture of the RV at the top of your blog, I thought ol' Steve had really become footloose and fancy-free and joined the RV-travelling cult in Mexico. Now, the Professor might think that was a pretty good way for an old dog to travel but I'm not too sure about his staff! How is Jiggs handling the heat and humidity these days and nights? We need an update on your four-legged companion. Have a great week in Mexico...where, presently, it is only slightly hotter than it is in my part of Canada.

Steve Cotton said...

Ruth -- I finally finished my vocabulary list from a month of classes. Now, I need to expand from there.

John -- Interesting anecdote. I did the same thing with Bill Buckley's books when I was in high school.

1st Mate -- I thought I knew most of the grammar terms. But it is good to relearn several of them. The subjunctive appears to have more life in Spanish than in English where it is quickly being subsumed.

Holly -- More than classes, I am learning from usage.

Kim -- The shifting pronouns, the "por/para" choice, the "to be" or "not that to be" decision. They make learning Spanish interesting. Again, I want to thank you for directing me to the Keenan book. It has engendered some interesting disputes with my instructor. My mother is an accordionist, so the instrument is not foreign to me. But have you seen my favorite movie (My Favorite Year)? It contains a great accordion joke.

Anonymous -- Jiggs is struggling with the heat. Even with the air conditioner running, the temperature has not dropped below 87 in the bedroom. Right now it is 90. I think he dreams of sacking out on the cool bricks next to the hot tub in Salem. Nothing like that here. He might even like an RV -- if it had air conditioning that actually worked. I almost popped him in the back of the Escape to drive him around during the night last night just to cool him down. But I have not had enough sleep myself to be out driving during the day -- let alone the night.

Steve Cotton said...

Larry -- How did I miss commenting on your post? If I can get the two big "to be"s out of the way, everythiong else should start falling into place.

Penelope said...

Label everything - I mean everything, label the dog if you have to - write the words in BIG letters so you see them when you enter a room. Never mind what the maid thinks, she can clean around them. You are now able to visually connect with an object in Spanish. Verb tenses must be memorized - start with 5 power verbs. This worked for me 25 yrs. ago when I arrived in Mexico. It's a great start.

Anonymous said...

Lots of great suggestions.

Movies, music, newspapers, labeling and near constant radio or anything spoken in the background or while sleeping. It's slowly coming for me and I'm not around Spanish speakers much.

I have found translation of most words is the wrong approach for me. Steve, you have the opportunity to immerse and until your brain sees objects for what they are in Spanish you are just spinning your wheels.

Next time you find a bag of cerezas take them home, cerezas, not those sweet juicy things you used to buy in Salem.

Steve Cotton said...

Penelope -- There is a German Expressionist or Dadaist play based on this same notion. It is just not coming to my memory at the moment. I should have labeled it better.

Anonymous -- I actually discovered the joy of using my high school Latin to translate. That works far better in print when I have time to think about the word. It completely fails when I try to take the words from English to Spanish.