For the love of language

If you can read this post, consider yourself lucky. You have (at least) a basic comprehension of the most widespread language in the world. If you’re a native English speaker or learned the language at a young age,you’re even better off. With arguably the most useful language already under my belt, my foreign language of choice was Spanish when I got to high school.

I like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at Spanish since I started learning it six years ago – I’ve even chosen it as my area of specialization for my public relations major. I’ve discovered that I really like the experience of learning a new language and always considered learning more, but I never gave much thought to it until earlier this year.

One day this past March, I went to my Spanish professor’s office to make up an in-class assignment I had missed due to our PRSSA networking trip to Charlotte. After completing the assignment, I ended up chatting with her in Spanish for 45 minutes and somehow the subject of foreign languages came up. She asked if I had ever considered learning Portuguese, I said no, and she said I ought to consider it due to its relative similarity to (written) Spanish. A few weeks later, I came across an article about language-learning app Duolingo, which is an extremely popular way to fit bite-sized language lessons into a busy everyday lifestyle. I’d known a few people my age who used it and loved it (it’s perfect for on-the-go college students looking to expand their minds), and decided it was worth a try. I’ve been using it almost daily for several months, e agora eu posso falar português bastante bem.

In addition to becoming pretty comfortable with Portuguese, I’ve also worked on improving my Spanish this summer. I’m not traveling abroad in a Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking country, and I don’t have regular access to native speakers of either language. Here’s how I’ve been improving my language skills over the past few months just by adding a few learning opportunities into my daily routine.

Listening

This might be the easiest skill to improve thanks to modern music-streaming services. Add a few Pandora stations that play music in your language of choice to your regular music rotation and you’ll be surprised at how much your listening skills will improve. After listening to it for a while, you may even discover new artists that you’d never really considered listening to before. I’d heard a few of Shakira‘s songs before, but it wasn’t until I heard more of her music on Pandora’s Latin Workout Radio that I decided to download a few of her albums and she’s now one of my favorite artists.

I’ve also added a Brazilian station to my Pandora, which is pretty interesting – lots of Bossa Nova-type stuff, mostly in Portuguese. I haven’t really discovered a favorite artist yet, but it’s still pretty cool music. I’m trying to listen to it more often because spoken Portuguese is so different from spoken Spanish. My favorite example: there’s no rolling your r’s in Portuguese – the rr sound is pronounced like an H. The word for “rice” in both languages is arroz, pronounced in Spanish like “arrrroz” and in Portuguese like “a-hoz.”

No matter what language you’re learning, music is a great way to get used to hearing it. There’s bound to be some musician that sings in it that you’ll end up liking.

Shakira and her adorable Spanish-speaking family.

If you speak Spanish, there’s also a good chance that most major cities have at least one Spanish-language radio station. Columbus, Ohio might not be LA or Miami, but apparently there are enough Spanish speakers here for 103.1 FM to exist. I listen to it every day on my way to work.

Bonus tip #1: Don’t be obnoxious about it, but watching movies or TV shows where a foreign language is occasionally spoken can give you a great opportunity to translate, especially if there are no subtitles. I watch I Love Lucy with my mom every morning while I’m eating breakfast, and she glances at me every time Ricky mutters something in Spanish.

Bonus tip #2 (for Spanish speakers looking for a good workout): Try Zumba! You’ve probably heard of it – it’s a latin dance fitness workout where 90 percent of the music you’ll hear is in Spanish. I started going to classes at my campus fitness center in October of last year because I wanted to start taking my workout routine semi-seriously, and because I’d tried (and hated) running. My train of thought during that first class can be summed up with “My legs are too long for all these high knees,” and “Oh god I can’t shake that.”

But despite my awkwardness, it was still pretty fun and I liked it a lot more than running, so I kept going. I was involved in cheerleading for 12 years and I danced throughout elementary and middle school, so a dance-based cardio workout is definitely my style. It’s an awesome, fun workout and a great opportunity to listen to Spanish being blasted at you 🙂

Speaking

How do you practice speaking a language when you don’t know anyone else nearby who also speaks it? This is probably the hardest skill on your own, and the best thing to do might just be to listen even more. Listen to native speakers with different accents and different dialects. Look up videos on YouTube if you have to. If you really want to sound like a pro, do some research on the linguistics for your language of choice. I took Intro to Hispanic Linguistics spring semester of my freshman year of college, and it taught me a lot about the subtle differences between Spanish as spoken by a native speaker and even the most proficient expert who learned it as a second language.

If you’re really feeling brave and confident in your pronunciation abilities, don’t be afraid to talk to yourself (although this works best when you’re actually by yourself, in the car or something). You’ll probably definitely feel ridiculous, but even an inane comment like “Dios mío, voy a llegar tarde porque hay tanto tráfico,” every now and then will work.

Reading

Again, this is a super easy skill to improve thanks to the internet. Take a moment every morning to read the news in your language of choice. You have access to foreign language publications like El País and der Spiegel at your fingertips, even if you’re nowhere near Spain or Germany, so this is a great way to keep up with current events while improving your second language at the same time.

If you’re like me and don’t like to consume all your reading material from a screen, consider the old-fashioned medium of books (fine, I guess this can apply to Kindle and Nook people, too). There’s bound to be someone who writes in your language whose work you enjoy.

When it comes to reading things in Spanish, my writer of choice is 20th-century Andalusian poet/playwright/all-around fantastic human being Federico García Lorca (who was murdered 78 years ago next Tuesday, que descanse en paz). I’d read (and enjoyed) some of his stuff in AP Spanish and my Civilization & Culture of Spain class, but it wasn’t until I decided to work with La Casa de Bernarda Alba for my final project in junior comp Translation as Writing this spring that I decided to reread the whole play and realized how awesome he is.

spbook
If the price of this is any indication, an authentic autographed copy of Bodas de Sangre would cost slightly less than a year of college.

Lorca has a lot in common with Oscar Wilde, my favorite English-language writer, which maybe explains why I enjoy his work so much. Poema del cante jondo and Romancero gitano capture the beauty and culture of southern Spain. ‘Romance de la guardia civil española’ is a pretty long poem but it’s my absolute favorite. His ode to Salvador Dalí is heartbreakingly pretty. ‘Ciudad sin sueño’ and everything else in Poeta en Nueva York offers an interesting look at the U.S. at the onset of the Great Depression. ‘La cogida y la muerte’ is a humble reminder that life is short and can be gone in a second. Just like with Wilde, it’s hard to pick just one favorite thing that Lorca ever wrote, but these are a few that I really like if you’re looking for Spanish reading suggestions.

Lorca and a pre-mustachioed Dalí at some point in the 1920s.

It’s a little more difficult to find reading material in Portuguese, because I’m not at the same level as I am in Spanish where I would feel comfortable reading an entire book written in that language. Thanks in part to the World Cup last month, I found a pretty easy way to practice reading in Portuguese a little bit here and there. I followed a few Brazilian journalists who were covering the event and tweeting regularly in Portuguese, which allowed me to get used to reading it without being completely overwhelmed (they only get 140 characters, after all). I also got into the soccer spirit and followed Cristiano Ronaldo, who was occasionally tweeting in his native language during the World Cup. He doesn’t really do so that much anymore, but I’m still following him because…well.

One of my long-term language goals is to read The Alchemist in the original Portuguese, so there’s that too.

Writing

To improve my Spanish writing skills, I started a version of this blog en español. It’s not going to be any new content, just translated versions of posts that I write here, but it seemed like a good idea to get some kind of professional presence in Spanish out there.

Disclaimer on my Spanish blog: "First of all, I should let you know that I am from the U.S. and Spanish is not my first language. If I make a mistake, please feel free to correct me in a comment. Although I've been studying this language for several years, I'm still learning it and I welcome all corrections and suggestions."
Disclaimer on my Spanish blog: “First of all, I should let you know that I am from the U.S. and Spanish is not my first language. If I make a mistake, please feel free to correct me in a comment. Although I’ve been studying this language for several years, I’m still learning it and I welcome all corrections and suggestions.”

With Portuguese, I’ve just been writing as much as I can, as I learn it. Verb conjugations, word definitions, you name it – if I think I’m going to have trouble with it, I’ll write it down. As similar as (written) Portuguese is to (written) Spanish, there are still some differences, so I pay special attention to those.

Look familiar, hispanohablantes?
Look familiar, hispanohablantes?

 

There are so many ways to enrich your language skills, even if you’re not in a classroom or surrounded by native speakers. Look for opportunities in your everyday life, such as those I’ve suggested here, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much you improve. I never thought it would be possible to learn a language from an app, but Duolingo is awesome, and some of the things I’ve described here have helped a ton with learning Portuguese.

I’m going to start learning my fourth language in a few weeks because I’m taking Intro to German this semester at school. I studied abroad in Leipzig, Germany last year (it was not a language program, it was for my major, hence why I didn’t know the language beforehand) and fell in love with the country. I’d like to be able to go back to Germany someday knowing how to say more than “Sprechen sie Englisch?” and “Ein bier und ein currywurst, bitte.” We’ll see how that goes, but I like to think I’m on my way to becoming a full-fledged polyglot.

I personally love the experience of learning new languages and hope to become familiar with even more throughout my life, but even if you’re just looking to pick up a few basics for fun or to help you in your travels, do it. It’s an amazing way to open your mind to a way of thinking you never would have considered before.

Whatever language you’re learning, I wish you buena suerte/boa sorte/good luck 🙂

 

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