I have been learning Spanish for seven years now. I am reasonably successful at sustaining conversations, haggling over price, asking for what I want, and discussing the weather. Hay agua. Hay lluvia. I still do not feel competent. I miss a lot. I am tongue-tied and inept in many situations. I know I butcher the grammar, though most of my friends and associates are too polite to say so. I am going to start another round of intense study, soon.
In the meantime, I have been thinking about some of the differences between English and Spanish. Some obvious ones: in Spanish, they ascribe gender to nouns, have plural articles, and have a huge number of verb tenses. In English, we don’t. Another difference is the relative size of each language’s vocabulary. A university level English dictionary has roughly 200,000 words that reflect common usage. A similar Spanish dictionary has about half, or 100,000 words. Why? Because English reflects emergent Germanic and Latin linguistic roots, whereas Spanish is more exclusively Latin based (though, interestingly, influenced by Arabic).
This may not seem important, but over the years I have had the feeling that there just aren’t enough words in Spanish. The same Spanish word is routinely used to express multiple things or situations. In English, there are multiple words with individual nuances to express the same general thing or situation. For example, we can say something is small, little, or tiny. In Spanish, the same thing is pequeño, or if really, really tiny, pequeñito. And while we talk about the lawnmower, the weed eater, the rotor tiller, the blender, the generator or something else that has moving parts, has a specific name and is a machine, the most common Panamanian word used to express ALL of these is simply, la máquina. Context is primary to meaning. “La máquina está dañada.” Which máquina?
I am also coming to grips with the fact that the reason I don’t pick up on the nuances that actually do exist in Spanish is because I don’t know the subjunctive verb tense. What is the subjunctive verb tense? We don’t use it in English. It is used prolifically in Spanish to express exactly what I have felt was missing: nuance—the reactions, attitude or mood of the person speaking about a certain situation, thing, or state of being.
I have been guilty of saying the reason I can’t understand what is said to me is because Spanish is spoken so rapidly. Actually, there are no studies to support this perception. Spanish speakers do not, on average, speak more syllables per minute than English speakers. There are two reasons why this seems to be true, though. Many Spanish words end in an open vowel sound, whereas most English words end in a closed consonant, so we don’t hear the ends of words and it all sounds run together, when it really isn’t. But, the bottom line is that I simply don’t hear the language, because…drum roll…I don’t know it. Or at least, I don’t know it well enough, and I don’t know enough of it. Yet.
With the exception of Chinese, Spanish is the most spoken first language on Earth. I will leave learning Chinese to my daughter. I have ranted previously about the importance of learning Spanish in order to live here and assimilate. There is simply no other way to understand the culture at a deep level. I repeat, learn Spanish. Now I add, learn MORE Spanish.
Here’s the good news. Both English and Spanish speakers, in daily conversation, use between one and two thousand words to communicate effectively. That doesn’t seem so daunting. I have to go study. Poco a poco.