Working on your Spanish

[18 November 2017; copy edits 18-24 November]

In just over seven months, the annual Digital Humanities conference will take place in Mexico City. I doubt that I’m the only digital humanist in the world who is surreptitiously trying to improve my Spanish before next June.

If you are trying to improve your Spanish (whether for that reason or for others), here are some things I am finding useful.

First, a textbook.

  • The French publisher Assimil has a Spanish volume in their sans peine series: L’espagnol sans peine. It’s available in several versions for speakers of different languages: English (Spanish with ease), German (Spanisch ohne Mühe), Italian, Dutch, and Portuguese. The series is described, quite accurately, as suitable for “beginners and pseudo-beginners” (débutants et faux-débutants).

    I bought the book and CDs direct from the Assimil web site and had them shipped to me in the U.S. without any difficulty; the only catch for some potential buyers is that the site is in French. Period. (Wait, aren’t they specialists in books for foreign-language learners? Don’t their web people realize the firm has non-Francophone target readers? Ah, well. There are some English-language resellers one can use, or you can grab a Francophone friend and make them babysit you through finding the book you want and making your purchase.)

    I won’t attempt to describe the Assimil method here. The linguist John McWhorter has given a good account of their results in his piece on the NPR web site (and there is some useful concrete advice at the site ‘How to Learn any Language’, for those who find the books’ instructions vague). I will say that for those who like me are attempting to learn (or re-learn) a language on their own and not in a class, the Assimil sans peine series has no equal that I know of.

    I bought the combination pack with the printed book, sound CDs with recordings of the dialogues, and a CD with MPEG versions of the recordings; I have downloaded the MPEG recordings to a directory on an Android tablet, imported the directory into the Podcast Addict app as an audio book, and I use Podcast Addict to play the day’s recording on continuous loop while I fetch the paper, wash dishes, etc. Listening in a podcast player has the advantage that I can speed up the early lessons to something approaching normal conversational speed.

Second, a supply of relatively easy reading and listening material. My searches for podcasts for learners of Spanish as a foreign languages turned up large numbers of results, some of which were obviously irrelevant and some of which I was able to delete without qualms after listening for a couple of minutes. I now listen to three:

  • Español automatico, prepared by a personable teacher of Spanish named Karo Martínez; in some installments, she speaks in relatively simple Spanish about assorted topics (the relative merits of the various actors who have played James Bond, the history of Catalonia, how to learn Spanish, and others; self-help topics of the how-to-be-more-organized variety are not uncommon), in others she specifically discusses issues of Spanish idiomatic usage and vocabulary. Episodes generally range from twenty to forty minutes (although when she got going on her introduction to the history of Barcelona, it ran over an hour). Transcripts and other additional materials appear to be available from the web site, some for purchase, which I hope pays for the cost of producing and publishing the podcast, and others for free (but you have to give them your email address, which induces a spasm of irrational privacy paranoia in me, so I have no idea what form the transcripts take). The only blemish for me is the repeated plea for listeners to file a five-star review of the podcast in iTunes.

  • El oso latino habla español — para mejorar su español, a quirky podcast put together in Sherbrooke, Québec, produced by a Québecois Spanish-learner named Pascal Dion and featuring the Peruvian Oswaldo Horna Montes (known, I gather, to his friends as El oso latino) as the main speaker. Episodes often include interviews with visitors from Latin America, with other Latin Americans living in Sherbrooke, or with anyone whom the host and producer think will be interesting; topics of discussion regularly include differences among varieties of Spanish and idioms peculiar to this or that regional variety. In one show, Montes narrated the preparation of a Peruvian dish for dinner. Dion appears in a regular segment on language-learner errors called Crónica del gringo, and Montes’s daughters in the segment Los chistes de Celia y de Marisol, which makes me laugh til I cry even though I have not yet understood a word of any of the jokes they have told. Lots of music. The most personal and thus the most memorable of these three podcasts. Generally around 30 minutes per episode.

  • News in slow Spanish, which is more or less what it sounds like: a weekly podcast with news stories in Spanish (there are similar News in Slow X podcasts for a number of different languages). There are several versions (intermediate vs. advanced, Castilian vs. Latin American), but oddly only one that I was able to locate from within Podcast Addict (Spain, Advanced, which proves not too advanced for me). News in Slow Spanish (Latino) does appear in the Tune-In Radio app (the only thing I miss there is continuous looping).

    I shied away from this at first; I have decades-old bad memories of unconvincing ‘newscasts’ specially for language learners filled with soft news (to give them a longer shelf life) and painful explanations of words. But I ended up trying the podcast, after I failed to find an app or podcast that would give me a conventional five- to fifteen-minute radio news broadcast on demand, preferably updated once a day or once an hour (something along the lines of the NPR News app, or the Radio Canada app, which will play you the most recent hourly newscast on demand — still looking; if you know of anything let me know). And I was convinced. The news items are real, current, and interesting, and the editorial comment feels lively and intelligent. In the Latin-American version, particularly, it is interesting to listen to the friendly discussion between hosts with slightly different political leanings.

    I’ve been listening to the initial free portion of the podcast; a longer episode with more news items and some discussions of Spanish grammar and idioms is available as a paid service. The free portion runs about five minutes. (Every now and then there is either a slip or an intentional freebie, and the entire thirty-minute program is included.)

On easy reading material, I’m not doing too well. Children’s and young-adult books are an obvious choice, but I don’t know an easy way to know what’s worth buying and what’s not. Well, actually I do. The next time I’m at my public library I’ll ask at the information desk for recommendations.

And third, a supply of normal Spanish for listening and reading, ideally interesting and not over-challenging. Here, of course, the choice is limitless and the expanse of possibilities feels as trackless as Borges’s Library. (If you need more motivation to work on your Spanish, think about it — you could be reading Borges in the original!)

There is always the news (which tends to have a relatively manageable vocabulary, and to have a lot of short pieces). There are Android apps for any number of Spanish-language newspapers, most of which I haven’t heard of and some of which may or may not be worth reading. With my mind focused on Mexico City, I have looked only at apps and web sites for Mexican newspapers. A Mexican colleague (whom I thank, but who shall remain nameless here because I haven’t asked permission to name them here) has suggested:

  • Animal politico (left wing); the web site is fine on a desktop machine and a bit hard to navigate on a tablet. I didn’t find any app.
  • El Universal (center right); I did find an app but did not find it usable.
  • La Jornada (left wing); I find the Android app usable (though I wish it allowed me to adjust the font size), so I haven’t worked with the web site.

At the moment, I confess to finding Mexican newspapers slightly heavy going.

Since I’m a digital humanist, and I’m looking forward to DH 2018, I read the blog run by the Red de humanidades digitales with great interest, even if sometimes with imperfect comprehension.

Eventually, I’ll be looking for Spanish-language detective stories and the like: page-turners are a real boon for a foreign-language learner, so I will happily read many things in a foreign language whose English equivalents I wouldn’t normally be caught dead with. (I’m told that on the same principle, some adult literacy programs in this country do great work with Mickey Spillane.) Suggestions welcome.

Finding good podcasts aimed not at language learners but at intelligent adults has been a challenge, but looking around for podcasts on the sites of UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónomo de México) and IMER (Instituto Mexicano de la Radio) has produced dividends, as have some journalistic think pieces I found on the Web on new media in Latin America. Right now my subscriptions include the following. (At the moment, all of these are tough sledding for me, but they repay repeated listening. The ability of podcast software to slow the playback helps — it’s like being able to say “¡Demasiado rápido! ¡Más despacio, por favor!” and have the podcast nod and slow down.)

  • Azul Chiclamino, a podcast by Rodrigo Llop. I have no idea how to describe this; perhaps the subtitle will do: La realidad de lo absurdo. This is sometimes characterized as a humorous broadcast; for a sufficiently nuanced definition of “humor” (think Mark Twain) that’s probably true, but I find the podcast much more appealing than that label would lead me to expect.
  • Radio Ambulante, an NPR-affiliated podcast. Feels a bit like Radio Lab or This American Life, in Spanish: thoughtful, serious, well produced. Has the advantage that its stories are often about Hispanic affairs in the US, so I understand some of the background; has the drawback that its stories are often about the US, which doesn’t help break out of a US news bubble.
  • Ráfagas de pensamiento, a series of short pieces by the philosopher Ernesto Priani Saisó of UNAM, often reacting to a passage in an earlier philosopher (Nietzche, Husserl, Leibniz, More, …). Produced with atmospheric music and read by what sound like professional voice actors. Has the disadvantage for me that the background music can make the words harder to hear; has the advantage that it’s worth listening to. Usually 3-5 minutes per piece.
  • A multipart dramatization by Radio UNAM of Así asesinaron a Trotski by Leandro Sánchez Salazar, the man in charge of the investigation of Trotsky’s murder. I have no idea what Sánchez’s book is like as a historical source, but it has the virtue of strong narrative drive — even though I already know how it turns out. I may need to read the book in order to understand some of the broadcast.

Netflix and Amazon appear to have rather thin selections when it comes to Spanish-language films but they do have some. If anyone reading this knows an effective way to search by language on either, I’m all ears; surely searching for “Almodovar” should not be the only possibility (I am going to save Buñuel for later, when my Spanish is better and I can tell the difference between surrealism and not understanding the words). YouTube has a fair bit of Spanish content, though again I have not found any good way to find it except for searching on random Spanish words. An impulsive search on “Así asesinaron a Trotski” turned up several documentaries on Trotsky’s assassination, Trotsky’s life, Trotsky and Stalin, and Ramon Mercader (the man who killed Trotsky), as well as a few seminars on Trotskyite political theory.

[Addendum: on Netflix, selecting Browse / Audio & Subtitles takes the user to an interface where one can browse items with audio, or subtitles, in a given language. This is imperfect, but probably better than nothing. Looking for something to watch in the resulting display feels like looking for a book to read in a library arranged by color; for every ten times you feel irritated by its apparently random arrangement and the inconvenience of having to click on something every time you would like more information than is given in the icon, you may once or twice feel pleased by some serendipity.]

All of this is, of course, just my two cents. As may be clear from the above, my language learning work happens mostly on an Android tablet, not on a desktop machine.

One thought on “Working on your Spanish

  1. Another idea: read a novel you know well in English in Spanish, either the original or a Spanish translation. A French friend of mine learned (rather odd) Spanish by working her way through Don Quixote, which she knew very well in French translation. Another friend has learned to read multiple languages by using translations and originals at Project Gutenberg and making his own interlinears.

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