Monday, September 23, 2013

The attempts to learn Spanish

As I've mentioned in the past, Zumba uses a lot of Latin American music and most of these songs (if not all...) are sung in Spanish. I don't speak Spanish beyond a marginal level though and me being me, I can't not know what they're saying. Can't. Not. Know. There are a surprising number of Zumba songs that have already been translated to English by someone (thank you whoever you are). But there are also a lot that are not. I can run the lyrics through a translation program, and get a very basic idea of what the song is about but the A.I. translates things quite literally and the result is often something very weird. let me give you a "for instance"...

Danza Kuduro [the chorus only] by: Don Omar feat. Lucenzo

Here's the Spanish
La Mano Arriba
Cintura Sola
Da Media Vuelta
Danza Kuduro
No Te Canses Ahora
Que Esto Sólo Empieza
Mueve La Cabeza
Danza Kuduro

Here's the English translation  (courtesy of Lyrics Translate)
Put your hands up
Moving only the hips
Turn half around
Dance to Kuduro
Don't lose your breath now
Because this has just started
Move your head
Dance to Kuduro

Here's what the same thing looks like put through an online translator
Hand up
Single waist
Turn around
Danza Kuduro
Not tea tired now
This only starts
Move the head
Danza Kuduro

See what I mean? I love the "not tea tired now". Tea? Really? Trust me, nothing in this song is about tea. Well I shouldn't knock the translator too much, it's handy in a pinch and I can get the general idea. Lyrics Translate is where I typically find songs translated from Spanish into English. They will put both versions side by side for comparison which is nice. I've noticed that by reading enough of these translations, most especially if I have the actual song playing while I read, I remember a lot of the words. Then I start picking the words I do know out of other Zumba songs. You'd be amazed by how many times the words caliente and calor are used in a single class. Both are words describing heat. When I first started doing Zumba, I'd pick out maybe one word of Spanish in every ten based on my one semester of high school Spanish (more about that in a minute). Now, three and half years later, it's more like five in every ten. Assuming of course that the artist isn't rapping because then that's just too fast for me to follow. I've dubbed this process of pseudo-language-learning "The Daddy Yankee School of Osmosis Spanish". It's actually not -just- DY, there are a lot of other artists you could easily substitute in, he just happens to be one who gets a lot of air time in a lot of Zumba classes.

This past spring, I finally decided to buckle down and actually take learning Spanish a lot more seriously. I got some books from the library to read. Some were good, some were not. It's difficult to know what fits your learning style until you dig in. And you do need to dig in, if you really want to teach yourself a new language for real; you need crack a book and study. I did this, and I got some listening CD's from the library for the mommy-van. Those weren't as easy as the package proclaimed. I quickly realized that while intended for commuters, it would be better for those who didn't have to commute by actually driving; more for train and bus riders. I'd be listening to the CD and then I'd need to focus on traffic and miss most of the track. After one chapter, I sent it back. That method was not for me.

I thought about buying some learning software and when I checked into it, I about fell off my chair. Do you, dear readers, know how much Rosetta Stone Spanish costs? Right this minute, as I type this, their Latin American package (levels 1-5) is on sale for 40% off so it's...choke...only $299.99. Originally...gasp...$499.99. Okaaaay then, that method is also not for me because I'm not shelling out that much money, period. But just for fun, I read some reviews which was interesting as they were very mixed. Most of the other cheaper software options looked okay, but by cheaper, I mean $30 to $60. Searching Amazon, I came across something called Babbel which said "free app". They have a lot of different languages to choose from, available for PC and Android. I checked them out on the PC, since I don't have an Android, and the -first lesson- is free and, though it was fun and I liked the format, I didn't want to keep paying for the subscription.

Bry ultimately came to my rescue. He keeps up with what's new in the tech world since he works in computers. He read about a new online program called Duolingo that had recently started up and it was completely and totally free. Free forever! On the day I sat down to write this post, Duolingo posted the following video to YouTube. Talk about serendipity.

Boy, the price sure was right! There's nothing to download if you're using a PC, you just create an account and log in. They do make apps, but only for iPhone and Android right now.

***Side note: Dear Duolingo, I have a Windows phone and I'm really not feeling the love. Please make an app soon so I can take my Spanish to go. Sincerely, The Zumbamommy***

This program formats the learning as if it were a game, with skills trees. You level up, and move higher up the tree as you progress. If you don't log in to practice often enough, the skill bars decrease and you have to review what you've already learned to get them back up to full again. As a former World of Warcraft player, I know a little something about leveling and skill trees, so this sounded right up my alley. Duolingo currently offers Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Portuguese. It also offers English to people whose first language is Spanish, French, Italian, or Portuguese. I won't get into the how-to's and make this a product review. All I will say is that I love this, it makes learning a language fun as it presents you with the materials in an intuitive way. I highly recommend it!

I mentioned a little earlier in the post that I took a semester of Spanish in high school. That was an awful class. I didn't like the teacher, actually hardly anyone did, she earned the nickname La Vaca ("the cow" in the feminine form). That's not something that I came up with, that's something I was told from people who had already taken her class! So deciding to try to learn Spanish again was a big deal for me considering how my high school teacher put me off it. I've found success with this program but I am by no means fluent. Frankly, trying to string a sentence together is still pretty hard. There are a lot of nuances to the Spanish language (as with any I'd imagine...) that I simply overlook because I'm not experience enough. I'm hoping in time, that won't be as true. What I can do fairly well at this point is read and hear; well...provided the person I'm listening to is speaking slowly enough. I've actually begun to feel confident enough in my reading to order a novel from the library that is written in Spanish. I was inspired to do that by my step-mom.

And this brings the topic around to my family and one of the key motivating factors in my desire to learn Spanish. What, you thought it was just for Zumba? It is a little, but my family is more important. My step-mom is originally from Peru, as are my half-sister and half-brother. We have our very own little modern blended family. They are native Spanish speakers and are now also English speakers from living in Canada. When they were here visiting this summer, my step-mom had a book that she was reading that was written in French. My dad, step-mom, and half-sibs all live in Québec, so knowing some French is fairly important there, especially in terms of employment. For my step-mom and half-sibs, learning French has been a real chore. French is a legally required subject from preschool through ninth grade. And when I say legally required subject, I don't mean we took French once a week as a special. I mean learning French was given the same importance as learning say, science or social studies. It was an everyday thing so I actually know quite a bit myself having grown up in Ontario. Am I fluent in French? No. You start to loose language skills when they aren't practiced. I don't know anyone in Michigan who knows French (much less Québécois French). I empathize with my family's struggle to learn French. In some ways, the language is similar to Spanish given that both languages have a foundation from Latin. What I discovered when I first started learning Spanish was that when I was asked by Duolingo to translate something from English to Spanish, my brain would reach for the French word first. I had to work, not only at remembering the Spanish I was working on, but at actively pushing the French away into the nether reaches of my brain. This is where I wish the Vulcan Mind Meld was a real thing. My step-mom and I could really help each other out that way.

Best advice: Don't let yourself believe that you "don't have a head for languages". You do. All you need is for the material to be presented to you in the way that works best for -you-. I believed for years that I'd never be able to learn Spanish thanks to La Vaca. Here are two things that Zumba has taught me these past 3.5 years: 1) I CAN dance and I do have rhythm. 2) I CAN learn Spanish in a form that fits me and with the right motivation. That's the beauty of Zumba, it is full of "I can's".

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