Monday, January 20, 2020

moving to mexico -- tricks of the language

Languages can be tricky.

Especially if you trying to learn a new one.

I started learning Spanish two years before I moved to Mexico. I bought several computer programs and worked through them diligently. But very little stuck because I had almost no opportunity to use what I was learning.

When I moved to Mexico, I kept plugging away on the computer, added Duolingo to the mix, and I became desperate enough to attend three in-person classes. My Spanish improved because I was actually able to exercise it each day talking with my neighbors.

But the most improvement was the direct result of adopting Omar as my son. He speaks very little English, so we talk in Spanish. I only see him for about an hour each day, but he always teaches me new terms while we talk about neighborhood doings.

I noticed that he usually did not always use the usual de nada for "you are welcome." He says, "por nada," which means the same thing. When I was in Colombia, I heard the Colombians say: "con mucho gusto" instead of "de nada." 

Because it was something different, I started using it here -- like those affected American tourists who visit England and start saying "cheers" wherever they go.

Somehow (I am going to fall back on the trope of an aging mind), I conflated my newly-learned phrases, and I ended up writing "con nada" on a Facebook comment, rather than "por nada." My friend Roxane gently corrected my error.

But that mistake reminded me of several conversations I have had with Omar about being careful learning a new language by listening to some native speakers. Everyone does not have a grasp of their own native language.

My Mexican friend Gus has spent years improving his proficiency in English. He has the advantage of having accumulated an impressive vocabulary.

We were sitting around the pool when he said something like: "Your flowers have a nice odor." There was really nothing wrong with the sentence. He had successfully conveyed his thought to me. It was just a bit awkward.

But I told him he had stumbled into one of the trickiest English cul-de-sacs. English is an incredibly rich language. Because it has drawn from a large variety of different languages for its vocabulary, words often have historical subtle differences that are often honored only in their breach.

Smell is one. The apparent synonyms include odor, fragrance, aroma, stench, bouquet, perfume, scent, stench, stink, essence, savor, and a number more are not really synonyms. They are not interchangeable. Well, they should not be.

Native English speakers quite frequently in conversation will simply pick one word as if it means the same as the next. Or ambiguously. Substituting "smells" when the speaker means "stinks" is common. But it presents problems for a student who is trying to learn English.

The best Spanish teacher I have encountered here was a young woman from Maine, Amy, who taught high-school Spanish Down East. She was here only for the summer, but I thoroughly enjoyed her classes because she enjoyed talking about the subtleties of speech.

She was teaching us comparatives. She wrote "Ella es tan vieja como yo" on the board, and asked us to translate it into English. The translation was easy for the class. "She is older than I."

She asked if anyone had any questions about the construction. No one did.

Amy then told us why she had asked. In another class the prior day, a student had challenged her that the English translation was wrong. It should be:"She is older than me"

When Amy tried to explain that the proper pronoun for comparison is the same in English as it is in Spanish (I and yo), the student slammed her book and left the classroom with "If you don't know English, you can't know Spanish," and walked out.

Of course, Amy did know English. Standard English. But the student was not entirely wrong either. 

Over the years through improper usage, "than me" has become common sub-standard usage -- heard and used daily. The test to understand the proper usage is to add the assumed "am" that would otherwise end the sentence. "She is older than I am." "She is older than me am" would not be my first choice.

And then there is "unique," probably one of the most abused adjectives in English. Most native speakers commonly use it as an adjective for "unusual." It is not.  It means: "Being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else."

I have a solitaire app on my telephone that serves up some really odd advertisements. Jewish cruises in the Pacific. Gay pub crawls in Puerto Vallarta. Package tours to Banff for single mothers. They are eclectic, if nothing else.

While I was in Oregon, an advertisement from the Danbury Mint popped up. You have probably encountered the company before. Its goods usually make QVC look like Tiffany's.

What was on offer for Christmas was a gold and diamond pendant set with the birth stones of a couple with their names etched on the pendant. Forever Together. A perfect sentimental Christmas gift.

But it was not the pendant that caught my eye. It was the promise that would accompany the gift. "Give her a pendant as unique as your love!" On its face, that sounds as if it might be a proper use of the term "unique."

Until you consider thousands of the pendants will be sold. That factoid matters. The promised "unique" love seems to have a lot of possibilities. Even taking into account the variable of the birth stones, unless the names are "Baranakanipherio" and "zyxwvu," there are going to be duplicates. If the giver's love is that type of unique, a Dear Abby letter baptized in tears will be in the offing.

"Unique," like a large portion of the English vocabulary, comes to the language from Latin -- through the courtesy of the Norman invaders. Not surprisingly, there is a Spanish cognate -- único. 

According to the Royal Spanish Academy, "
único" means exactly the same thing as in standard English. "Sole, solitary, only."
But, if you use any of the online translators, you uncover the same dog's dinner that has occurred in English. It is regularly translated as "special" or "exceptional."

One of my frustrations with learning Spanish is that I want to learn the stories behind its words. The result is that I end up doing in my Spanish studies what I do with Omar and Gus when discussing English words. It reminds me of Gertrude Stein's criticism of Ezra Pound: "He was a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not."

What I need to do is to pay more attention to what I think I have learned. My "con nada" mistake being a good example.

But, before I go, let me leave you with one more example of just how wrong my Spanish can get. This one I blame on spending far too much time with slang-besotted young Mexicans.

I was in a San Patricio restaurant two nights ago. The waiter brought me my mineral water and offered a straw (un popote in Spanish -- at least, in Mexico). In a fit of green consciousness, and without filtering my words, I declined the plastic straw with: "Gracias. No. No necesito un pito."

Because this us a family-oriented blog, I will not translate why the waiter went wide-eyed and then could not stop laughing.

Some mistakes are better than others.    

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