Learning Spanish Painlessly

I confess to spending too much of my time doom-scrolling, but there is so much to doom-scroll about: the pandemic, then the trucker protest, and now the war in Ukraine. And my blogs are often an extension of my doom-scrolling, attempting to come to terms with the bad news by trying to look behind the headlines or relating the news to my expertise in public management. But the daily dose of doom can be overwhelming, and I look for alternative ways of spending time. One is learning Spanish, which I’ve discussed in a previous post. My preferred time for Spanish study is late afternoon, when I’m still reasonably alert.

I’ve studied quite a bit of grammar using Duolingo, taking courses, and working through the exercises in Gilda Nissenberg’s Complete Spanish Grammar. At this point I know the basic structures, particularly the verb tenses and the difference between the indicative and subjective moods. I admit that I haven’t yet memorized all the verbs that are exceptions to the three conjugations, though they have started to become familiar through repetition. And, with cognates from English and French, my vocabulary is reasonable. So I’ve decided to pause traditional language study to learn Spanish by listening, watching, and reading. Here are some of the ways I’m learning Spanish painlessly.

The Duolingo Podcast – Local Heroes

Duolingo produces occasional podcasts in intermediate Spanish (sometimes weekly, but then with long periods of radio silence). The podcasts are hosted by the effervescent Martina Castro, who shares the air with the interviewee for approximately 20 minutes. They are almost always upbeat and showcase local heroes; the three most recent feature a Mexican man who makes pinatas and teaches his art to children, an Argentine woman who is a grill master (asadora) and has a podcast for other women who grill or aspire to, and an Ecuadorean man who is making the custom of burning effigies on New Year’s Eve environmentally sustainable. Martina interviewed many local heroes of the pandemic as well as some Hispanic artists with an international following, such as the Mexican tenor Javier Camarena. As a student of public sector innovation, I love local heroes. The geographical diversity of her interviewees also helps me develop an ear for the many Spanish accents. Felicitaciones, Martina!

It Gets Darker

As is well known, the Spanish-speaking world has had more than its share of periods of conquest, conflict, colonialism, cruelty, and caudillos. An interest in Spanish history or historical drama inevitably leads to a confrontation with those themes. Last year, I watched a sixty-part docudrama about the life of Simon Bolivar. A few years before, I read The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa’s brilliant historical novel about the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo’s reign of terror and well-deserved assassination. Llosa’s latest novel Tiempos Recios (Harsh Times) deals with Guatemala in the Fifties, a country that suffered from the intervention of the United States Government (through the CIA), the United Fruit Company, and Trujillo himself. The book is available in both languages, and I would read paragraphs and, after a while, pages in Spanish and then go back to the translation to help with the grammatical constructions or vocabulary I had missed. This is a tragic story, but it did increase my understanding of Latin American history and it expanded my vocabulary.

Arriba, Abajo

The twelve-part Netflix series La Cocinera de Castamar (The Cook of Castamar) is set in a duke’s household in early eighteenth-century Spain. The cook is downstairs and the duke is upstairs, but eventually they fall in love. The series is far more violent than English-language comparators like Upstairs, Downstairs. In addition to numerous illicit romances, there are plots, betrayals, and murders. As historical drama, it does have the characteristic that actors speak more formally and slowly than in contemporary drama. I strongly recommend it, whether subtitled – the way I watched it – or dubbed. Now that I’ve been through it once, I might watch it without either English or Spanish subtitles, as a test for my ear.

Sisterhood is Powerful

The drama I’m currently watching is Las Chicas del Cable (the cable girls), about four young women who work as telephone operators in Madrid in the late 1920s. This was before the time of electronic switching, so that operators connected calls and overheard conversations.

The girls, of course, become BFFs, and support one another through romances and travails of work. The owners of the telephone company are well-connected (no pun intended) and entirely corrupt. In that, the series resembles Dallas or The Godfather. This program, too, is full of lies betrayals, as well as occasional murders, some crimes of passion and others prearranged hits. The plots are usually over-the-top, the most recent example being a violent hostage-taking at the phone company during a visit by the king, with the hostage-takers demanding that he abdicate and threatening to blow up the building if their demands aren’t met. I’m half-way through the forty episodes and try to watch one most afternoons. My favourite character is Dona Carmen de Cifuentes, the matriarch of the family that owns the telco. Dona Carmen is single-mindedly devoted to enhancing the power and status of the family and will use every available means, legal or illegal, to that end. She’s entirely evil, but I love her Spanish, spoken slowly, formally, and in a husky voice.

I’ve realized, from several programs that the characters I like most are middle-aged and speak somewhat formally in resonant voices that signal authority. Perhaps that is because their Spanish is easier to understand than younger people speaking faster and more colloquially. Or perhaps that is because that is how I like to think I speak.

The imaginary world I’m choosing to visit daily, upon reflection, is no less corrupt or violent than our world. But Madrid in the early eighteenth century or late 1920s displays gorgeous costumes and elegant settings and the language I’m trying to master is sounding increasingly familiar and pleasant to my ear. Por que No? Si, claro.


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