Thursday, June 16, 2011

Communication consternation, part II

If you're at all curious about DF's continued efforts to become facile with the Espanol (and judging from the crushing volume of email from the Broad Readership, you doubtlessly are), consider this puzzling comparison based on events that transpired yesterday.

I. During the ESMA tour, my attempt to explain (in English) why the Argentine atrocities of 77-83 are underappreciated in the US requires me to say "ethnic groups," which word the very fluent-seeming guide does not require, causing me to transition into Spanish to explain what I mean, and triggering a switch with her as well, after which we complete our discussion of this issue in Spanish. Then after the tour we discuss various other interesting topics, e.g., American politics, again in Spanish, all with great facility on my part, so much so that at one point she spontaneously observes, "You speak great Spanish," in Spanish. I felt very proud.

II. After the ESMA tour, a few of us from the Sw program went to have crepes at Carlitos in Belgrano with some law students from ESMA. They were all on the young side, around 22, and while the subject of the conversation with them was much more pedestrian, I could barely, barely keep up and at one point simply admitted to a colleague, "I have no idea what they're saying." I felt very embarrassed.

What to take from these two examples?

1. My Spanish language skills are as mercurial as I am. Those of you who know DF know that my life and career have been marked by moments of pretty excellent performance as well as some shocking stinkers. Consistency is clearly not my strong suit. Hence with Spanish, I'm the same. At times I'm killing it and effectively fluent. At other times, I flounder and stammer and seem like a full-on Americano retardado.

2. What factors dictate the Dr. Fluent and Mr. Retard distinction? Two major ones are whether I'm feeling mentally sharp and whether I'm in an extended conversation. That is, when I'm mentally sharp and feeling good, I can rock the Spanish pretty damned well. But when I'm feeling tired and annoyed (which is a lot of the time as I'm getting over the resfrio as well as negotiating the challenges of sleeping in the noisiest city I've ever lived in), it's an unfun pain in the ass, and huge parts of me just want to scream out "Speak freakin' English already." (NB: I have resisted actually doing this.) Related, when I'm in an extended conversation that's given me some context and a chance to ramp up to Spanish, then I've got momentum, and it all works. But on the spur of the moment, say when someone asks me for directions out of the blue, I'm totally caught out and often have to scramble to remember to speak Spanish at all. (Consider also, e.g., when I'm surprised--invariably my angry swearing on the street at cars that nearly run me down is in English.)

3. Age plays a major factor in my comprehension. The ESMA guide was late 20s, early 30s, while the UBA students were no more than 22 or so. For some reason, below about 25, Argentines become well-nigh incomprehensible to me. They apparently speak with a slangy accent and use idiomatic phrases often enough that I'm told Argentine folks of my age have trouble understanding them, but it explains I think why the UBA law students were more or less lost to me completely.

4. On the whole, I think the Espanol is coming along OK. Being a self-critical perfectionist, I'd pretty much rate anything less than total fluency as utter inadequacy, but attempting to be less unreasonable for a moment, I think it's safe to say that my comprehension has improved a lot (I'm often at 90%+ when old people are talking), and my speaking is pretty dead-on as long as all the relevant factors are in place. To give one brief indication, I'm currently writing this with "Metro" (my fave Bs As channel, which shows only newsy shows) on in the background. The Argentine presenters (one of whom is named, hilariously to me, "Fanny Vega") are speaking slangily and at typically Porteno machine-gun speed, and when I turn my concentration on the show, I'm getting it, or at least 85-90%. And I just signed up for an intensive Spanish course next week so I'll be forced to work on the communication consternation even more.

There's the language update, Broad R. You're welcome.