Saturday, May 10, 2008

Living With the Language

Spanish is not my 2nd language--Portuguese is. I learned it in the best way--total immersion, staying with a Brasilian family, not hearing a word of English for weeks at a time. I have a lot of funny stories about those experiences, although some of them are amusing only in retrospect. I speak Portuguese fairly well; I feel comfortable traveling anywhere in Brasil, where, outside of a few tourist areas, very few speak English.

Given the speed with which we moved to Panamá, I had almost no opportunity to study Spanish before we got here--enough to know that the grammar was very similar to Portuguese, that verb conjugation was nearly identical, and that pronunciation was radically different for some consonants (depending on placement in the word) and diphthongs. The two languages were enough alike, though, to give me some confidence. There had been my learning experience in Brasil, and I felt if I could survive that, I could survive anything.

Plus I was assured (incorrectly) by acquaintances in Boquete (source of most of my erroneous information in my 4 years here), that it wasn't necessary to know Spanish, that lots of Panamanians spoke English and one could get along easily without it.

Now, that's probably true. Then, it was flat out wrong.

We bought land rather quickly, decided on a contractor even more so (lucked out on both of those decisions), and pretty soon we were involved in construction.

Because I'm out of the construction loop these days, I don't know how it works now, but then, if you were smart, you served as your own purchasing agent. Given how one of our future neighbors is going to be fleeced so badly he'll be lucky to survive with his shorts, I think it's still a good idea. The builder was the general contractor and he gave you lists of what you needed. Because I had been in project management, I knew to allow for lead time, etc., so it wound up being an invaluable learning experience for me and an unusually smooth construction for this area--we moved into our house only 6 weeks later than we had been promised, a delay that was not due to the builder. From start to moving in, the house was built in less than 6 months. Even counting the bodega, which was built first, it was something like 7 months more or less.

So Chief Purchasing Agent Joyce, lists in hand, had to go to David and deal with construction supply companies where not a word of English was spoken at that time.

As happened in Brasil, although in a different subject area, I quickly enlarged my pathetically small Spanish vocabulary in a very specialized sector--construction terms. Those were pretty easy to learn. However, nouns are nowhere near enough--verbs get the action done.

Dictionaries are inadequate, to put it mildly, to look up verbs given that Spanish verbs are so irregular thanks to the prevalence of the stem-changers. Portuguese saved my life because I knew, from experience in Brasil, what I had to look for. Differences in conjugation in the tenses I needed were so minor as to be ignorable. Spanish uses more reflexive verbs than Portuguese does (and orders of magnitude more than English)--at least the way it's spoken here--but that was ok--I could still understand and be understood and at that time, that's all I cared about. When I didn't know a word in Spanish, I would desperately fall back on Portuguese and hope. That worked about 50% of the time; the other 50% of the time, I would get polite but blank stares. Since I am Italian by ethnic heritage, I used my hands a lot, searched for different ways of saying what I wanted to get across--and it all worked.

There were a few minor problems--misunderstandings--but nothing lethal. And I learned, believe me, I learned.

So then came daily life. I knew from Brasil that if I wanted to be comfortable here and minimize unpleasant experiences, I had better improve my Spanish. You simply don't understand a people or a culture until you speak the language.

One of the greater ironies of my life is the pronunciation of "r" and "rr". Because I grew up in a household where Italian was spoken often, I was quite comfortable with rolling my "r"s just like you need to do in Spanish. BUT one of the bigger differences in Portuguese is that, not only do you NOT roll "r", but depending on the position in the word, you either aspirate it--it just about disappears at the end of words like "por"--or it becomes an "h" sound ("rio" is pronounced "HEE-o" in Portuguese, for instance). I had to beat it out of my pronunciation, suppress that ability entirely.

Then I moved to Panamá--and discovered that an ability which I'd had for over 50 years had disappeared in less than 10. I have as bad a time as most linguistically-challenged Americans with "r". The Espinosas are constantly and gently correcting me, and I am constantly and far from gently frustrated. I've got it back partially, but I mourn for my lost ease. Since there are other differences that come up practically in every sentence, I despair of ever losing my Portuguese accent.

Another aspect I had a terrible time with, although I've just about mastered it, is the use of reflexive verbs. English uses what we call a passive voice; Spanish uses reflexives, far, far more than in Portuguese. Same is true with the concept of transitive and intransitive verbs--except for the usual culprits in any language ("to be" and "to have"), Spanish doesn't have intransitive verbs--it uses reflexives.

I'm still struggling with indirect pronoun redundancy, although I'm getting there, I'm getting there. Brasilian Portuguese just about ignores it, which is totally symptomatic of that laid-back people, so I never learned it.

And finally, I'll never forgive Spanish for not having the marvelous, the glorious short-cut constructions that allow you to avoid having to use the plural conjugations except in certain cases. Here in Panamá, I've had to learn 5 conjugations for each tense; in Brasil, I rarely needed more than 3 in any tense and only occasionally 4. I'm also much, much fonder of the way Portuguese sounds due in great part to its nasality, second only to French; it's so much softer than Spanish which, I've decided, is the harshest of the Romance languages.

There's really only one way to learn, and that's to jump in there and talk. And listen. Again, from experience in Brasil, at first I paid close attention to advertising, because it's always pitched to the lowest common linguistic denominator. I picked up a lot of Spanish that way. Reading the newspaper every day helps a great deal. I'm advanced enough to ask Maritza to help me with constructions I simply don't understand. I say "advanced enough" because I have to understand the explanations in Spanish--neither she nor Ricardo speak English. But Maritza is a retired public school teacher and is used to dealing with children, so we get along just fine! Mary and I alternate weeks going to their house for Spanish lessons and visiting; she goes for formal lessons, I take my notebook with phrases I don't understand, constructions that have me baffled, and questions as to when you use one word and not another. I feel I've made a huge leap in my understanding in just two sessions.

Plus, she feeds me. What an incentive to learn!

The big exception: I don't do well on the phone. I dislike it in English and avoid it whenever possible in Spanish. Many times the connections are not good, cellular to cellular, and just trying to figure out what's being said, never mind translating it, is nearly impossible, what with static, the dialect, and the fact that in the early days when I asked people to speak more slowly, they 100% of the time doubled or tripled their output per second. So I don't ask anymore.

One of the paradoxes is the better I get in Spanish, the more a salesperson or someone else will either slip into dialect or use idioms I've never heard before and ramp up their speech to Mach 2 (if I'm lucky) or Mach 4 (if I'm not). I'm totally familiar with this from Brasil, and I'm resigned to it here, although there are times when I wind up feeling I've made no progress whatsoever in the language. I paraphrase and ask questions; so far I've managed to survive. But I still hate the phone.

I download and print out at least one article from La Prensa nearly daily, and read it--for vocabulary, for grammatical constructions and for Panamanian usages. Many times the paper is boring, but last Sunday's edition had a whole section on the food crisis that was every bit as good in its local focus as the series of articles that have been running in the NY Times and the WA Post. I had bought a hard copy at our mercadito; I still have that section.

Around the house, we speak a mixture of Spanish and English. I've gotten to the point that at times I have to search my memory for the English word because I'm so used to using the Spanish one. There are many times when there is no English equivalent, so we wind up speaking Spanish out of necessity.

I can't understand people who refuse to learn the language. They miss out on the wonderful whimsical Panamanian humor, for example, and on important aspects of their lives, their culture--and most importantly, their food! My life would be far poorer if I couldn't exchange gossip with Darío, or joke or laugh with him (why do I get the feeling that his wife has been listening to his jokes for 40 years, and he's ecstatic with his new audience?). I would miss out on the warmth and affection of the Espinosas who have for all intents and purposes taken us into their family. I would never learn to avoid pitfalls that you can fall into if you're ignorant of the language.

I do study (not nearly enough). I have some excellent workbooks, particularly for verbs, all of which can be purchased through Here is a list of those and other books I've found useful:

Concise Oxford Spanish Dictionary, 2nd edition. Available locally--we picked ours up at PriceSmart, I believe

501 Spanish Verbs by Kendris and Kendris. I consider this indispensable. I have its companion for Portuguese. I bought mine through before we moved here.

Practice Makes Perfect: Spanish Verbs and Tenses by Richmond. Outstanding--I can't recommend it more highly. BUT--you have to have the self-discipline to drill yourself.

Practice Makes Perfect: Spanish Pronouns and Prepositions by Richmond. Ditto.

Larousse Diccionario de Sinónimos Antónimos. We just recently picked this up at Rey, and I'm starting to use it more and more.

Read, read, read--La Prensa for starters. Something else I've found useful (and it will be more so as my Spanish improves) is to buy a book I already have in English and read it in translation or the original Spanish. Rest and Relax in Boquete has books in the original Spanish by Isabel Allende and Arturo-Perez-Reverte, two of my all-time favorite authors. I picked up a couple in Spanish last time I was there. Mary also has the first Harry Potter book in Spanish, which I think is even better because Rowling pitched that book to pre-adolescents in a marvelously non-condescending way. Almost everyone has a Harry Potter book (we, like most of the known universe, have all 7).

She also has another booklet she picked up somewhere in David; she says it's available in just about any supermarket in David: Escuela Para Todos 2008. This is a 192 page booklet with short, relatively simple, informative articles. She does not speak Spanish as well as I do, so this might be a nice resource for beginners and just beyond beginners. I haven't read it yet, although I will sooner or later, since the articles sound interesting.

These resources may not suit everyone, and I'm sure there are many, many others equally as good, but these are the ones of which I have first-hand experience. Unlike Portuguese textbooks, I haven't found an equivalently good Spanish textbook, so no recommendation there.

I hope these are of some use.

5/12/08: This in from Don Ray of Chiriquí Chatter: " has a pretty desent free portion that will assist with getting started in Spanish."

5/13/08:  A few more good language links--these from Mary Farmer in the Comments section (check for descriptions):

For iPod users:   Learn Spanish--Survival Guide
For free, written material:


Richard said...

I just stumbled across your blog and am enjoying it. I intend on retiring to Panama within the next year. It isn't one of those "wouldn't it be great?" ideas. I spent nearly four years out of the States and am familiar with culture shock.

I was offered a job this way: "How'd you like to work in France for six months or so?" Never thought it would end up being nearly 3 years followed by 7 months on the Costa del Sol.

Anyway, when I arrived in France I could count to 10 and tell people that my Aunt's pen was on my Uncle's desk and that I had entered the classroom. Nearly 30 years I had taken 4 years of French in high school. Actually it was 2 years of first year French and 2 years of second year French, failing the first years and barely passing with a D in the second year courses, so I was basically unable to use the language.

But on arrival I bought a small, pocket dictionary with plastic covers that I could keep in a pocket. In fact, as I sit here I can glance up to the books over the computer, and there it sits.

I learned TWO phrases that helped immensely. Est-que vous avez--Do you have? and Je voudrais avoir--I would like to have. Simply using these two as I struggled with the language made a world of difference in how I was treated by the French (It's NOT true that the French hate Americans. They hate everyone including each other.).

If I went to a store and couldn't find what I wanted on my own and it was something I absolutely HAD to have, I'd get out my dictionary, look up the item (nice, regular nouns) and find a clerk. "Pardon, est-que vous avez une bougie? (spark plug)

"Oui, monsieur."

Et voila! as they say.

Je voudrais avoir is great in restaurants. You can pretty much figure out what's on the menu without much trouble even without knowing the language. When the snooty waiter comes for your order, you use the magic phrase and point to the item on the menu. Hey, don't we all do that a lot even when dealing with menus and waitstaff in our native tongues?

The phone, though, is a demon vomited up from the bowels of hell. A lot of what we "hear" actually comes from the other person's body language, use of hands, facial expressions. You don't get those 'reads' on the phone and your comprehension plummets to about that of just plain noise where you might catch two or three words in the whole conversation.

I can hold a basic conversation with someone in Spanish. I mean living in south Florida and working in the construction industry you pick things up. But there will be a lot to learn when I get there.

One final observation: When you're learning a language, stumbling around trying to make sense out of the babel and think you're not getting anywhere, well, wait and persist. Then, one night, you will be jolted awake with the realization that you actually just had a dream in French/Spanish/Lithuanian/or Urdu. Now it's a PART OF YOU. It's in your subconscious! You will never be the same again. I left France 17 years ago and still have dreams in French. It happens when I dream about those friends of mine who didn't speak English. Naturally if they are in a dream I couldn't talk to them in English because our entire relationship was rooted in French. They wouldn't understand me if it wasn't in their language.

Thanks for letting me ramble.


Joyce said...

What a great post! Thanks for recounting your experiences--great stories.

And I know what you mean about waiting, and things will fall into place. It's happened to me, several times, with Portuguese. Suddenly, after being tongue-tied and unable to get out what I wanted to say, I would be able to speak without thinking. I knew I'd "arrived' in the language when I started dreaming in Portuguese. Even now, as soon as I return to Brasil, within 24 hours I'm chattering away without needing to think.

Sadly, I don't dream in Portuguese any more, and have not started in Spanish. But the day will come, I'm sure.

One of the things I learned is that once you learn one language, especially Romance languages, it's easy to pick up another. You know what you have to do. My major problem is laziness!

No problem about ranting. Any time you like. I'm sure it's clear that I'm a wordy Italian who would (almost) rather talk than eat! I love listening to and reading about others' experiences.

Richard said...

One thing I left out of the original comment was that as I progressed with the French Language and, like yourself didn't think, just talked, I would from time to time wonder what poor, despairing Mr. Downey would have thought about my facility with the language he so desperately tried to teach me in high school to his total frustration.

Joyce said...

I never had any formal classes in either Spanish or Portuguese, but did take Latin and French in high school and German in college. If necessary, I probably cold get up to decent speed in German without too much pain. But I am a combination of self taught/survivalist training in Portuguese especially, and Spanish.

I think I can say, without bragging, that I have a gift for languages. But more important than that are two factors: 1) I grew up hearing Italian and therefore was aware that something else besides English was spoken and far more important 2) a really solid foundation in English, taught in a way that seems to have disappeared in the US. I learned parts of speech, how to diagram a sentence, how to compose a sentence and more. In other words, I was taught how to learn a language--my own--and that has been the foundation of all language learning since. Latin was important in that it introduced me to verb tenses and conjugations.

However, my grateful thanks are due to José Arimatea Oliveira de Nascimento, a man of much patience, who sat me down with the Partido de Trabalhadores newsletter and taught me Portuguese from that.

Fraydoh said...

Hi Joyce (and Mary, wherever you are!),

First off, I thank Don Ray for mentioning your blog. ChiriquíChatter is my first Happy Hour spot of the day, and he always makes me happier. The Republic of Panamá really should provide him a stipend. I've read your blog from beginning to end, and I'm sure glad you decided to do it. Your blog is now my second spot of the day!

Your formal language history parallels mine. Our teachers were very big on diagramming sentences, too. I had 4 years of Latin (but did it in two), then 2 years of French, and 2 years of German in college. From watching foreign films, I can say I understand more French than German, and I suppose that's no wonder. My first year of German, I had a 70-year-old German who spoke Hoch Deutsch and taught the same, but much more reading and writing and conjugating, and virtually no speaking whatsoever. The second year, we had a young German man with an ability to speak English that was questionable, who thought learning Sanskrit would be more useful than Hoch Deutsch, and that you first need to speak, and maybe in the third or fourth year, learn to read and write. "Do you vahnt to kah-MOON-ih-kayt or to wight a bookkk (choke on the k)? If you wight a bookkk, do you vahnt ennyvuhn to weed it?!" So my first year of German was a wash.

My wife Deborah has Russian and German, and would probably be up to speed in a few months in either of those. So being totally logical creatures, we look to retire in Spanish speaking countries . . . Our introduction to Spanish was to visit Panamá a year ago January. People said "Oh, you don't need Spanish." Ho. Ho. Ho. Maybe those folks stayed in their hotel, I don't know. Everywhere WE went, we needed Spanish. Learn fast or don't eat.

One of our daughters had the brilliant idea of putting all my Spanish CDs on an Ipod. About two weeks before buying the Ipod, Deborah and I saw an ad for one and said "There's another thing we'll never need!"

Turns out, an Ipod is just the thing for working on your Spanish while puttering about the house or running errands in the car. I've either got to putter more or drive around more because I'm not as far along as I'd like to be. Conjugate? Hah. I'm still in the present tense, hand-waving, keep pad handy to draw a picture stage. (Luckily, I draw quickly.)

We really loved Panamá and met so many nice people. We especially liked El Valle de Anton. We had planned to stay a couple of days in Boquete, but it was not our kind of place and we left after one evening.

Volcán was pleasant and the area near town, especially to the southwest, seemed much less humid. Neither of us is fond of the problems humidity brings, and Deborah is especially sensitive to mold spores. We've chatted with a couple of people who have moved recently from Panamá to Ecuador, and less humidity and way fewer bugs were two things noticeable enough to mention. We'll be visiting Ecuador in the late fall this year, if we live long enough. (You just never know.)

Thanks for the Spanish book tips.

Gracias, y hasta luego,


Don Ray said... has a pretty desent free portion that will assist with getting started in Spanish.

Joyce said...

Hola, Frédo!

Thanks for the nice words. I am one of Don Ray's biggest fans, and think that Chiriquí Chatter provides a huge service to the ex-pat community.

Love your German language class story! The iPod is a great idea. Mary uses her for Spanish lessons while she's mowing. I got a big giggle out of your "There's another thing we'll never need" comment.

Central America is a questionable place for anyone who wants to avoid humidity, although maybe the Azuero Peninsula qualifies in Panamá. We, too, thought El Valle de Anton a beautiful place.

You sound like the kind of laid-back, thoughtful people who know enough to spend a significant amount of time living in a place before you decide to move there. I marvel at those who give more thought to a decision to change detergents than they do in deciding whether or not to move to a foreign country.

Please let me know how your journey goes!

Mary said...

For iPod users, there's a great, free series of podcasts by David Spencer, a teacher of Spanish. Each podcast is based on a different topic, and I now have more than 50 sessions downloaded to iTunes on such subjects as "My Car Broke Down," "A Visit to the Doctor," and so forth.

The link for the podcasts is at or you can search for "Learn Spanish - Survival Guide" at the iTunes podcast store.

The podcasts are great but I also like to see words in writing. David now has a blog where you can get pdf files of the podcast sessions. These, however, are not free. His blog is My Spanish Connection.

Another useful free resource is at which has mostly written material, including discussions of conjugation and so forth. You can sign up for a "Spanish word of the day" newsletter to increase your vocabulary.