Monday, June 6, 2011

Communication consternation

The broad readership knows that DF’s not the brightest bulb on the old tree, but also not the dimmest. Yet one intellectual challenge that’s always eluded me is the foreign-language speaking. Like most estadounidenses, I started learning a foreign language only when I started high school, around about 14 years, which is also around about the time that most linguists have shown is correlated with the irreversible atrophy of the part of the brain that can transition easily between various languages.

So while I have always been able to do OK with Spanish as an intellectual exercise, I’ve never had a sense of ease with it as a way of communicating with actual people (and as the B.R. well knows, interpersonal communication is not exactly my greatest skill in life). This is, FWIW, the polar opposite of what my many friends who speak a second language at home experience. They are totally verbally fluent with their parents and whoever else in, say, Spanish or Hindi or Arabic, but haven’t a clue how to spell or write it.

OK. So I had those three years of Spanish in high school, learning half-assed Espanol at the hands of barely competent gringos with atrocious pronunciation, and while this enabled me to get a non-embarrassing score on the AP Spanish test (4, meh), it did not result in my being able to speak real Spanish with real, live Spanish-speakers (which is, after all, the point of sprachenlernen, n’est-ce pas?).

I made various other stabs at sharpening the Spanish, including a language class in Barcelona for a couple weeks back in 2002, a couple additional Spanish classes in DC before a trip to Costa Rica in 2004 where I was able to passably navigate restaurants and hotels. Still, though, what continued to escape and evade me was an ease and fluency with Spanish, especially in more casual situations. I found myself able to explain big general ideas en Espanol, but when it came to little things like “Hey, can I get another round of drinks” I ended up communicating content without really being able to sound like an insider. I was like the German guy who speaks well enough but doesn’t actually know what to say, e.g., “May I be ordering additional food from your kitchen of this restaurant, the please?”

Now for this Argentine peregrination, my major goal was to finally, once and for all conquer Spanish. I was going to be here for a good long time (six weeks!), I would be forced to speak much Spanish because English is not particularly well spoken in these parts, and I was going to have lots of time to practice. (That last one went only OK. I found some great Spanish podcasts and listened to them a lot in the car, and while this helped a lot, it wasn’t a sea change in my abilidades, because I think there’s really no sub for speaking and being spoken at in the language of choice.)

I am here now, for about two weeks, and can formally assess the advancement of my Spanish as officially mediocre. It’s not a disaster. I continue to find myself able to speak reasonably well in the context of formal conversations about dedi topics, can order food in restaurants, and can more or less get around in Spanish functionally and with adequacy.

What I can’t really do, though, is truly understand casually spoken Spanish. Interestingly (or, much more likely, uninterestingly), I can’t follow much of the local comedy shows on TV, but I can totally get news shows or even talk shows about plays or politics (sports, not so much). Another driver of my comprehension is who is speaking. If I’m talking to someone educated (for lack of a better word), I can more or less get what they’re saying so long as there aren’t too many verb conjugations and it doesn’t come out too fast. But with folks from regular backgrounds (e.g., the driver Dante who accompanied me on my disastrous sojourn to Ezeiza to get the iPad), not so much. I think it’s because they have accents that are very pronounced and even more different from the standard Spanish I’m used to hearing than the mainline Argentine accent itself.

(Indeed, my Argentine colleague here has told me that despite years of English and a level of fluency that makes me jealous, that when she hears a serious Southern accent or the speech of inner-city black folks, she can’t understand a thing. I think the idea is that it’s hard enough to get your ear accustomed to the mainstream version of a foreign language, and even harder to get the nuances of a dialect-y accent, as that’s not terribly far off from understanding an entirely new foreign language.)

Final driver of comprehension: Fatigue, which I’ve had plenty of since coming here. The damned, damned club downstairs isn’t exactly making it easy to get a solid eight hours (though yesterday I invested in earplugs and they seem to have worked. At the very least, I think I got at least 8.5 hours last night, which if true would be a first, though will remain enshrouded in uncertainty because the particular difficulty of the oonta-oonta music pulsing from the club downstairs is that it causes me to wake up throughout the night constantly in ways that I only really half-remember.)

Point being, it’s really hard to speak Spanish when you’re tired, just as when you’re really fatigued it can be hard to think of any words to say in English, speech gets slurred, etc. At this stage, speaking Spanish for me requires the constant mental effort of translation, which is an interesting and fun challenge when sharp, and a real slogging mental pain in the ass when I’m not feeling up to it. And since I’ve been more or less in a total fog of fatigue since getting here, it’s limited what limited fluidity I have in Spanish quite a bit.

A final thought before I end what has, again, been a post of interest I think primarily to me, is that I’ve invented something interesting that others may find useful in describing and thinking about their own experiences with foreign langauges. Behold, it’s the comprehension/confusion (C/C) ratio. It’s pretty simple. The idea is that when you hear a sentence in a foreign language, you probably comprehend part of it, while the rest of it only confuses you. Hence, the C/C ratio, the amount of comprehension to confusion that you get from a given sentence.

It varies, of course, but on a good day I’m at about 70/30, and on bad ones around 50/50, maybe worse depending on the level of accent and the verb conjugations. The kind of interesting thing is what C/C level you need to understand a sentence. Even in English, I have kinda crappy hearing, and often need to ask people to repeat themselves, so in my native tongue I’m usually at like a 95/5 level, and that’s usually plenty. Here, I’ve found that 70/30 basically does it, for the most part, though around 50/50 can lead to some embarrassing misunderstandings and a general sense of confused haze.

And so DF continues, Broad R., seeking valiantly to improve the old Espanol by any means necessary, despite his innate retardation when it comes to foreign languages, and despite his general dislike of talking to strangers.

Photo: this pic of a subway ad illustrates the really really weird way the Argentines conjugate in the "tu" (or as they'd say, "vos") form. This ad says, "If you want an LCD, you've got a loan." In normal Spanish this would be "Si (tu) quieres un LCD, (tu) tienes un prestamo," but in Arg Spanish it renders as "Si (vos) queres un LCD, (vos) tenes un prestamo."