The Spanish Language

Do you know enough Spanish to read this sign?
One of the things that I learned when Julie and I turned our attention internationally to go waterfalling is that travel is all about building bridges between your own perception of the world and what actually happens in the real world. And so I realized that one of the best ways to build this bridge is to try to learn the local language as this would help me to keep an open mind and be prepared to expand my horizons as I went. Besides, I feel that trying to speak the local language (no matter how awkward it might be at first) goes a long way towards being encouraged as well as being greeted with kindness. It's certainly better than the opposite reation you might get when say you expect or even demand the locals to speak English on their own soil.

In the case of Spanish, this was really a case of practicing what I had been learning in Junior High and High School as this was my chosen second language. So I ended up taking about four years of formal study in High School with a pair of summer sessions in Junior High. And it really wasn't until we had to use the language in countries like Venezuela, Peru, Argentina, Mexico, and Chile did it become very apparent just how useful this language would be. Of course, it also helped with communicating with people at home as there's a very large Hispanic population throughout California (especially Southern California).

In this page, I'll try to introduce you to the language through my learning experiences. I'll also throw in some expressions that we came across frequently that you might be able to try as well as some vocabulary that would at least help you get some meaning behind the geographical place names or natural features you might run across if you went waterfalling. For more comprehensive learning, I'll also let you know about how I managed to learn some of the language as well as the resources we've used.

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Because I had spent at least four of my impressionable adolescent years studying Spanish in school, I was given plenty of exposure to the vocabulary, grammar, reading, writing, and some conversational aspects of the language. I also had plenty of opportunities to practice (in somewhat of a contrived way) with other classmates. I even watched and tried to follow along some telenovelas (Spanish soap operas) though admittedly, I was probably more motivated by watching las mujeres (the ladies) than trying to use the show to pick up the language.

Yet even given all the years of exposure, it wasn't until I had to use the language in the field on our handful of trips to Spanish speaking countries did I start to feel a little more comfortable with the language. And even then, I still don't have full command of the language (or at least not as good as someone who has managed to live or spend a significant amount of time fully immersed in a Spanish-speaking country).

Currently, what I do to maintain my Spanish is to try to speak with co-workers in the language. Admittedly, sometimes they go quite fast and I stress a little bit to keep pace. But at least some aspects of the language are becoming second nature because of it.

Before a trip to a Spanish-speaking country, I also use my commute time to review the language through a book and audio CD combination from Teach Yourself. I probably could drill myself a bit more with a more intense textbook and audio CD series, but I'll cross that bridge when I know for sure that I'll be spending weeks abroad in Latin America, the Caribbean, or Spain.

I'll go into a review of this resource in the next section.

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Teach Yourself: Spanish [Overall Rating: 3/5]:
The Teach Yourself Spanish book and audio CD (I used the 2003 revision with the oranges on the cover) was my primary self-learning resource when I was well out of High School when I was last exposed to the language in a formal environment. I primarily used its book to read while on the metro during my work commute, and I listened to its CD frequently while driving. I tended to prefer this lesson because I was able to learn or review Spanish without impeding onto my free time. After all, I was a captive audience during my work commute anyways so why not better use that time learning a language instead of road raging it?

So given that, the language lesson was pretty remedial for me at first, but towards the middle of the textbook, it then got into some of the harder stuff I struggled with in the past like command of substitution of words with pronouns, when to use the imperfect tense vs. the preterite tense, and the subjunctive. Obviously, those tricky parts of the language would become second nature with frequent utilization, but they remain bugaboos for me in a learning environment.

The Spanish used there is the formal one used in Spain so they do teach expressions with vosotros (something I don't think you hear much in Latin America). Some of the conversations used in the audio CDs also seemed to be a little contrived and something you're probably not going to use very much in the real world. I would have liked to have seen something a little more relevant to what you'd encounter in a real world environment as a foreigner as well as having more conversations to further train my ears towards the speed at which native speakers would go.

Overall, I gave it a 3 out of 5 because it was a decent refresher for me, but I felt there could have been a lot better integration of the lessons with real-life situations than what was offered in there. That said, it did a good job considering its price (in the < $40 range) compared to much more expensive courses that are out there.

Learn in Your Car Spanish Levels 1, 2, 3 [Overall Rating: 1.5/5]:
The Learn in Your Car Spanish series was three different lessons all of which I bought (it might have costed me in the neighborhood of $30 a pop around the 2006 time frame). Even though I had formal schooling in the language, I thought the CDs might be a quick-and-dirty way to refresh myself in the language.

The CDs each were basically a laundry list of vocabulary and expressions or sentences that I would repeat over and over again. Perhaps they were trying to follow the Pimsleur method of just listening to something repeatedly in order to learn the language. While this might have proved useful for the beginner lessons in the first series of CDs, its usefulness got less and less the further on in the lessons that I went. That was when they started using really weird expressions that I don't think I would ever use in real life. Plus, each of the sentences or expressions were completely out of context as each phrase had no relation to the previous phrase and were pretty random.

It's for that reason that I didn't give this lesson a very high score. While the convenience of learning in the car helped me utilize my commute time more productively, I ultimately found out that lessons like these really didn't have long term value and really didn't help with grammar or other key topics that I knew I would need command of in real life. Just memorization (which seemed to be the emphasis of these lessons) wasn't enough. The mini-booklets that came with the CDs were pretty much transcripts of what's said in the CDs, but again, given the lack of usefulness of the content, all the booklets did was perhaps help decipher some of what I thought I had heard in the CDs.

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Here's a list of very basic expressions that I have come across that you might find helpful. To learn more expressions or go through a much more comprehensive list than this, please check out more authoritative language resources.

  • Buenos días / Buenas tardes / Buenas noches - Good morning/day / Good afternoon / Good evening
  • ¡Hola! - Hi!
  • ¿Cómo está (usted)? - How are you? (note: this is the formal way of saying it)
  • ¿Cuánto cuesta? - How much does it cost?
  • Gracias - Thanks
  • De nada - You're welcome (literally, "it's nothing")
  • ¿Dónde está el baño? - Where's the restroom?
  • ¿Qué significa...? - What does ... mean?
  • ¿Cómo se dice ... en español? - How do you say ... in Spanish?
  • ¡Que tenga un buen viaje! (in response: ¡Igualmente!) - Have a good trip! (in response: Same to you!)
  • La cuenta, por favor - The check, please
  • ¿Qué tiempo hace? - What's the weather like?
  • Hace buen/mal tiempo - The weather's good/bad.
  • llueve - it's raining
  • nublado - cloudy
  • Hace calor / frío - It's hot / cold.
  • ¿Qué hora es? - What time is it?
  • Es la una / Son las dos. - It's 1 o'clock / It's 2 o'clock.
  • peligro/peligroso - danger/dangerous
  • aviso - warning
  • los impuestos / las multas - taxes / fines
  • Vamos / Vámonos - Let's go

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I'm sure there can be any number of words that would be helpful to know, but I'm going to do things a little differently and try to bias this vocabulary list with things more related to waterfalls or other geographical features. I figure that might at least help you read some maps or at least have a better understanding of what some of the local place names mean.

  • la catarata - the waterfall (cataract). Example: La Catarata Gocta is Gocta Falls
  • la cascada - the cascade or waterfall. Example: Me gustan las cascadas means I like waterfalls (literally waterfalls are pleasing to me).
  • el salto - the leap; typically used in waterfall names. Example: El Salto Angel is Angel Falls
  • el chorrillo - said to mean "steady trickle." Example: Chorrillo del Salto is the name of a particular waterfall in the Argentina side of Patagonia.
  • la montaña - the mountain
  • la selva - the jungle
  • el bosque - the forest
  • el río - the river. Example: el rio grande means the big river
  • el arroyo - the creek. Example: el arroyo seco means the dry creek
  • el mar - the sea
  • el lago - the lake
  • el valle - the valley. Example: el valle sagrado means the sacred valley
  • el parco nacional - the National Park
  • el agua - the water
  • el sol - the sun
  • el cielo - the sky
  • la calle - the street
  • la ciudad - the city
  • el país - the country
  • el sendero / el camino - both mean the path or the way

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Now that I've given you some vocabulary, can you now read this sign?

Because Spanish is spoken in almost all of Central and South America as well as the Caribbean, in much of the United States, even parts of Northern Africa, and of course Spain, I don't think I can understate the fact that a large part of the world can certainly communicate in Spanish without the need of learning English. In other words, it's very useful to learn Spanish and you can't be surprised to go to Spanish-speaking places where English may not be spoken at all!

Yet even if you're determined to learn the language, there's really no substitute for practice and full immersion in a Spanish-speaking country or region. I can personally say that even though I had over four years of schooling, my Spanish is still not as good as someone who has lived in say Mexico for just a year.

The reason why is because structured language may get you familiar with the grammatical rules and some vocabulary, but it can only get you to a point where you can have enough confidence to try the language in a real life situation. But to really have command of the language, you really need the full immersion so you're forced to adapt and think like Spanish speakers think as far as the language goes. After all, in real life situations, you can't predict how people will react to you. I think it's that spontaneity that is missing from structured learning, and it's the very reason why immersive learning easily trumps academic learning.

Anyways, even if you don't have full command of the language but you took the learning seriously enough to at least have the confidence to try, you'll find that just having acquired this basic skill will empower you to go off the beaten path and have a richer and more unique experience in a foreign country. It's also a bridge-building exercise where you can connect with locals and with the country in ways that are far more profound and lasting than a typical cookie-cutter tourist tour where the experiences aren't as unique and the connections made aren't as lasting.

Don't be discouraged by awkward exchanges or struggles to communicate, but I guarantee you that just by trying, you're in a far more hopeful situation than not being able to communicate at all. More often than not, I've observed that people are genuinely pleased and more encouraging when you try to speak their language. This happens far more often than the few instances where you might have run into someone who might be condescending. Besides, you'll never know if you don't try, and who knows where your learning will take you next? So what have you got to lose?

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