- Mastery is Mastering the Basics
- Max Out The Cause Card: The Omnipotence of Precursors
- When Will I Get Funny?
- The Eternal Sorrow of the Intermediate Learner: “Are We There Yet?” Syndrome
- Strategies for Overcoming Burnout
- Intermediate Goals, Mini-Dreams
- Language Is Peeing: The Approximately Top Ten Reasons Why Language Acquisition = Micturition
- Speaking: You Don’t Have A Linguistic Problem, You Have A Humanity Problem — Why You Still Suck At Speaking and How to Fix it Fast
- Start Dirty: Why A Clean Slate Is Bad For You and What To Do About It
- How to Stop Worrying and Accept that Learning a Language is Unfair — Going Beyond Day Trader Style Language Learning
- Getting There Is Also Your Life
- Grinding: Focus On What You CAN Do
- Intermediate Angst: Dealing With Feelings of Suckage
- Step Into the Sunlight, But Don’t Look Into the Sun
- The Intermediate Phase Is Like Tepid Tea, But That’s Fine, Because Tepid Tea is Hotter Than Ice Tea
And there came upon the email of Khatzumoto a letter long of length, correct of spelling and accurate of punctuation. And it was good. The emailer’s pseudonym was, is and ever shall be…Farley.
First, I want to start out by saying how much I have enjoyed the site and how helpful it has been to me. I’m sure you get a lot of questions, but I have an issue that I’ve not seen addressed on your site, AntiMoon, or similar websites, and it’s giving me quite a hangup.
First some background: I’m 27, native English speaker (U.S. born), trying to learn Spanish from zero. First foreign language I’ve seriously studied. I’ve been studying about a year and have not progressed as far as I would like. I do some writing by trade, and in my personal life I’ve been told I’m funny. So when it comes to language, issues of nuance, metaphor, timing, phrasing, inflection, etc. are important to me.
I have been watching some American movies and TV shows in my target language, using them to practice my listening comprehension, using shows I already know so that I already know the basics of the plot. (For the record, I watch humor – think Simpsons – or drama/arthouse type flicks.) Herein lies the problem. I know some of these so well (okay, mostly just the Simpsons) that I know lines verbatim, and when I see them translated, I get very hung up on why they were translated the way that they were if they were not translated verbatim — does that sentence structure not exist? does saying it more literally not sound as good? why that word order? is this a bad translation? is this a phrase that can’t be translated well?
Even with native materials I have this problem — was that an eloquent turn of phrase or just bad writing? My inner radar is gone, and it’s very disorienting. It’s also making it very hard to “let go” of English because I feel like I need it as an anchor. (By looking up a Spanish word in a bilingual dictionary so I can try to figure out all the exact implications and shades of the meaning, for example.)
I’ve tried to think back to how I acquired said radar in the first place, and I don’t really know. I certainly had some helpful formal instruction in writing, but for the most part no one sat me down and said, this kind of thing is corny while this is poetic, this is funny, this is smart, this is stupid, this is formal, etc. I’m sure it can be directly traced to my massive input – I have been a voracious reader since childhood, and I’ve watched many humorous programs over and over – and I’m sure you’re going to tell me that’s what the remedy is.
But this just makes me feel overwhelmed. I think of how many years it’s taken me to get to where I am in English – two decades of lots of reading! – and it just feels hopeless and impossible. I don’t want to win a Pulitzer for writing in Spanish, but I do want to be able to be me, to keep my voice, both in conversation and in writing – and that includes being funny and handy with a turn of phrase.
So could you comment on this? I can definitely understand — and have experienced — how input can help with acquiring an inner sense of grammar (what makes “I is” sound horrible, for example) but the higher levels are giving me trouble. I think the writing on your site is funny, and you’ve said in one of your posts that you were in a comedy troop. Are you funny in Japanese?
Farley, for a funny guy, you don’t sound you’re having a lot of fun 🙂 . Remember, you’re from a wealthy country. The wealthiest. You are a native speaker of its language. You don’t need to learn other languages. You don’t need to know Spanish. Life in the hispanosphere will continue whether or not you learn the thick, soft native tongue of Salma Hayek.
Realize that you’re doing this for fun. All the talk about multicultural this and global that is just a bunch of smoke language-lovers blow up people’s butts to make it seem as if what they’re doing is important. I am guilty of it, too. The real reason to learn a language is because it’s there. It is pure play. Real socio-economic need does arise if, say, you decided to move to a Spanish-speaking country for a long time. But even then, ironically, the fastest path, and the one that looks the longest, is to learn Spanish as if you didn’t have to.
OK, now to the core of your email. Humor. Think of humor as a high-order function that requires base infrastructure to exist in the first place. Kind of like how Internet access requires electricity, a computing device, literacy and a working network connection.
You don’t have that base infrastructure yet, therefore Internet access is still out of the question for you. Think about puns — you can only get puns if you first know the words that are being punned. “Cunning Linguist” only sounds funny when you know…about that activity women claim to enjoy (shopping? idle gossip? no? sexist comment? what?).
A joke in language is a somersault. You are trying to pull somersaults…but you can’t even walk yet. Which is not to say that you will never be able to pull them, it just means, you do need to build basic coordination and motor skills before you start busting the sweet ninja moves.
You need to be positive to the point of arrogance in your thoughts (“I am Spanish”), but short, simple and straightforward in your actions (“this sentence; this book; this show; here; now; this moment; this second; fun”). You need to be: Humble, but not diffident. Eager, but not harried. Determined, but not self-destructive. Like my good man Makoto Itou likes to say: “festina lente“. Hurry slowly.
You will get the jokes; you will be funny: you will find your voice. I found mine in Japanese. In fact, I found my Japanese voice so well that non-native users of Japanese hate my Japanese, just like non-native users of English hate my English. In both cases, you have a collection of otherwise simple ideas wrapped in a convoluted morass of criss-crossing running jokes based on things happening “off-screen” — random cultural background — that you have to already know about in order to even understand it, let alone enjoy it. And that is as it should be: I wouldn’t want to write Japanese that gaijin enjoy 😀 (even if I did, I couldn’t — not enough infrastructure to work with). Nor would I want to write the kind of English that the Education Ministry here in Tokyo seems to find fit to print in its approved textbooks.
You will get there. But to get there, you need to let go of both your starting point (English) and your goal (Spanish) and just focus on the road — doing Spanish things here and now. Let go of the wall of the rink, and forget about the other side. Just skate on the ice you’re on now. That means, it may well be high-time for you to go monolingual.
It’s said that humor is about betraying expectations. “Hell hath no fury like a woman’s corns” (<— not funny)….that type of thing. As you have already realized, you don’t yet know enough to even have expectations, let alone build and break them. That’s all.
You can’t be funny in Spanish before you know good amounts of it any more than you can make an order at a restaurant by screaming out of your car window on the way there. Which is not to say that you will never get to the restaurant. Just that, for your own benefit, you want to get in a roadworthy vehicle, drive attentively and keep going until you get there…and know that a few red lights (apparent “learning plateaux” — in truth, these are just periods of time where your progress goes invisible, not non-existent) here and there are not the end of the world.
Certainly, it took you a long time to get to where you are in English. But a lot of that time was (1) unproductive and (2) at a point in your life when you had lower mental capacity. You have more mental capacity now, not less. But you probably also have years of bad ideas and unreasonable expectations of input versus results. Ironically, you’re probably less patient now than when you were a child with a “short attention span” [perhaps our attention spans never change and it’s just that we change how we behave when the time runs out? I dunno…] In any case, it doesn’t really matter how long it takes because you will be enjoying yourself the whole time anyway. Right? 😉 Who cares how long the road trip is if Salma Hayek’s going to be there the whole time?…Or something like that.
So be patient. Keep being Spanish. It’s really that simple. It really is. Focus on what you can control directly. You can’t directly control when you become a Castillian Chris Rock. But you can directly control the expansion (and contraction) of your passive vocabulary. Expand your vocabulary. Expand your knowledge. Work faithfully, calmly and enjoyably on each brick and you’ll soon find yourself a nice little lego castle.
If you keep going, you’ll almost certainly make it. But if you stop and give up, you never will. It’s Spanish, dude. All European languages are really just dialects of each other anyway [here’s a fight-starter]. You’re practically there already 🙂 .
For more and better advice, from a real expert, go talk to Ra-Moses, Prince of SpanishOnly. He’s the man now, dawg.
Oh yeah, one more thing. Do you even like “The Simpsons”? It seems as though it has you doing more neurotic thinking than actual laughing. You need to start having fun if you’re wanting to avoid being that sad paradox — an unhappy funny person. Hint: if you’re getting worked up about it, then you’re doing it wrong.
Maybe you need some serious South Park-level potty humor to rid you of all pretensions of (to?) seriousness. Yeah, watch South Park in Spanish. Back in the day, I watched a ton of it in Japanese and was getting compliments on how natural my expressions were (e.g.: “マジかよ？！”) right from day one.
Finally, your take-home points:
- Let your metric of success be how much fun you’re having, not how much perfect verbal acrobatics you can pull right this instant.
- Focus on native-like process, rather than native-like results. The results will come from the process. Gosh, I get tense just reading your email 😉 .
- The coolest part about learning a language by having fun/like a native is that you get to do all that cool stuff that classes usually look down on and treat as a “supplement” to “real” study [because we all know that you’re not really learning until you’re having trouble staying awake and all your school shirts have drool stains from the uncontrollable fits of napping that boring classes send you into but I digress]. You get to eat dessert as your main course all day every day! Ice-cream for breakfast! Don’t go ruin it by mentally abusing yourself over your temporary suckage. Think of all the cool stuff you get to do as “study”! For crying out loud, you’re watching cartoons! You can be a kid again! This is awesome beyond compare. Cowabunga, my friend.
- If you know more today than yesterday, then you’re winning. Looked at in this sense, the race really is only against yourself.
- Trust your materials implicitly. You have to. You have no place judging the quality of Spanish-dubbed media; you simply do not have the equipment (yet); you are not at that level (yet), so the rule is: if it was made for native speakers, then it’s good enough for you. End of story. There is one — and only one — question on which you are qualified to pass judgment, and that is: “am I enjoying this?”.
- You can’t tell jokes before you can get them. If you do, it’s either a mistake or an accident.
- You cannot analyze before you have anything to analyze with — it’s like trying to use a pencil sharpener when you don’t have an actual pencil to sharpen: you just end up cutting yourself. This is a major problem in the current educational culture of the West [we’re painting with big brushes today*. Deal 🙂 ] — premature analysis. Always with the trying to make pots without clay. Be the Spanish, be physical, learn your katas. You have to do before you can fully understand.
- Timebox or otherwise limit your dictionary lookups so that you can get lots of quick “wins”, as well as nip compulsive behavior in the bud.
- Bilingual dictionaries are lying to you. They will never give you the full, true story. Would you tell a Spanish speaker to go digging through her espanol-ingles dictionary to find the “true” meaning of English words? Might as well tell her that El Nino is Spanish for “the Nino”.
- Last but not least: “Don’t use words to learn the meaning of sentences, use sentences to learn the meaning of words“. Greatest quote ever. Not by me, by the way.
If any of you good-looking AJATTeers has any tips for Farley, please feel free to share 😉 . You always put things much more succinctly than I do. Also, disclaimer: I do not know Spanish.
*I don’t know about you, but I smell another installment in the Baseless Remarks About Compex Social Phenomena series