Sunday, September 2, 2007

Bocabulary update

Some of you may be wondering, now that I've take the exam (el DELE intermedio), what's next on the agenda, language-wise. A reasonable question, and one to which I don't yet have an answer. But I will offer the following observation. My experience in trying to learn Spanish seems to be the opposite of when I was learning German. It is a truism that German grammar is difficult. As with all truisms, there is more than a grain of truth to this - there is no denying the ugliness of German grammar. However, once the grammar is mastered (which can take quite a while, admittedly), one makes the reassuring discovery that learning German actually becomes easier. The reverse seems to be the case with Spanish. That is to say, Spanish grammar is not all that hard (despite my occasional whining about its difficulty on this very blog). But, once it has been covered, improving one's Spanish appears to get harder, not easier. (I've had similar experience with French). There remain all of the infinite nuances, the expressions, shades of meaning. Which, sadly enough, it seems, can only be mastered with the passage of time.

I thus find myself caught in a stage where progress is imperceptible. My passive vocabulary is not the problem - I can now read most newspaper articles with little need to resort to the dictionary (unknown words can almost always be deduced from context, or etymology, or both). But there is the annoying sense that my active vocabulary is stuck, or at least being augmented at an imperceptibly slow rate. Other than immersing myself as much as possible in the language - seven hours a day of class, a couple of hours of TV, a couple of hours with the newspapers, a couple of hours spent conversing with fellow students, I don't know any way of accelerating the process. It may be that my expectations are set too high - after all, toddlers don't go from zero to full fluency in six months, so why should I expect to be able to? Presumably the law of diminishing returns applies to the exercise of learning a language, as well.

Here are some words I've learned recently, which illustrate some of the difficulties I'm experiencing:

tableta de chocolate : six-pack abs (literally, a bar of chocolate)
la nuca: the nape of the neck
la nuez: the Adam's apple (literally, walnut)
la sien: the temple (anatomically speaking)
la nuera: the daughter-in-law
la suegra: the mother-in-law (aka la madre política, which cracks me up)
el sauce: the willow-tree

It's the short words, like nuca, nuera, sauce, which are the killers - there are so damned many of them, and there is no etymological clue whatsoever. They are also very easy to mix up.

So that's my tiny little first-world problem of the day. I feel almost ashamed to bring it up. And now, if you will excuse me, I will go take today's copy of El País and go for a stroll in Madrid's delightful Retiro gardens.

¡Hasta pronto!

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