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Friday, September 24, 2004

Buggy Back In Business: A Spanish Interlude

Back online after a few weeks of mental repose, his draggy, over-the-hill brain crackling with high-pep energy once more, the buggy prof is ready to resume the series, now a couple of months old, on the nature of the US economy and its prospects in a globalizing world full of technological flux --- always viewed comparatively, you'll remember. The stress in this series of article, about 10 in all so far, has been on the institutional and socio-cultural context of the advanced industrial economies, especially under the heading of systems of national innovation . . . a Schumpeterian concept, you might further remember.

As you might also recall, the series also stressed ho . . . oops, did I just say mental repose a second or two ago? Can't be. Not true; at any rate, not what I've been up to recently.

Just the contrary. Above all, to explain brieflly, there's been

. . . An Hispanic Diversion

No, the diversion hasn't been with a pretty senorita . . . except in lurid fantasy-form, always a bugaboo hang-up of the prof's mind. What's been happening has been less exciting, even if no less obsessive: some time around the Labor Day, early in September, prof bug --- his mind, fingers, and will-power more or less in sync again after three weeks away from the pc --- was all ready to begin banging away on the keyboard with bursting fervor once more, bugging lots of people with his daily fuzzbuzz of rangy commentaries . . . only to have his mental powers suddenly slide elsewhere on a visit to Barnes & Noble bookstore. Drifting languidly, with easy unconcern, around the place, he had just wandered into the huge reference section. So far, so good. No change in mental energy. Even the repetitive imagery of a wickedly naughty post-serenade stage with a sulty senorita, her body spilling out of her red gown everywhere, had subsided to a slight tug at the back of his thoughts, nothing more.

The prof drifted on. His absent-minded glance went on loafing across the reference shelves, one after another. Hmm, no don't need another thesaurus; no, don't want to learn how to create a comic book; no, who wants to buy a . . .

All at once, prof bug's mind did a flip-flop. His eyebrows shot up; his jaw dropped sharply. Pop-eyed, slack-jawed, the buggy prof found himself staring wonderingly at hundreds of books and audio cd's on the Spanish language.

Say what?

Say this: unlike French or German, languages that he had been formally educated in --- and for matter matter also later taught in --- his command of Spanish was woefully feeble, entirely self-taught and not used much, if at all, in his intellectual work . . . much to his regret.

The problem was time, always that . . . too many other competing claimants on the buggy prof mind: too many professional tasks, too much donkey-work, too many demands of this or this sort in his private life. When could he study Spanish? In the future. Some time then; fingers crossed.

Well, for prof bug, the future had arrived. In July, after 39 years at UC Santa Barbara, he decided it was time to move on, take a retirement, and open up a post, preferrably to some brisk and bouncy young scholar. The upshot? Lots of time galore on bug-ridden hands. And now, on that sunny Labor Day inside Barnes & Nobel early this September --- the prof's bug-eyed gaze glued to the Spanish language works staring back at him --- the itch for some bursting, high-energy study was suddenly irresistible, full of manic urgency. If not now, when? The answer's evident. Prof bug was helplessly hooked.

Two hours later, the B&N's shelves left in a mess, he walked out of the store with a book on reviewing Spanish grammar and two cd-sets on Spanish conversation, all at the intermediate level.


A Harum-Scarum Interlude

That was surprising enough, this sudden macap pressure of prof bug to throw himself whole hog into Spanish. Even more surprising, three weeks of almost non-stop study tumbled on the heels of that initial purchase. What a scream! Rippling high-coiled work on a manic high, a kind of self-induced euphoria.

The audio-cd's turned out to be a particular delight. So did some follow-up pc programs, purchased later.
In the dark, uninformed years of the 1950s --- the pre-pc, pre-electronic era --- nothing like them was available. The pc wasn't yet invented; cd's wouldn't be for three decades either. No language labs existed, not in the school system or universities anyway. The pioneer work of the army translating school in Monterey, California --- which invented the labs, stressing intense aural training --- never reached the public for decades. How could it? Swotting, memorizing, stumbling over pronunciations, improving your reading knowledge --- but no oral work of any note --- were all that you had at your disposal. Take it or leave it.

Prof bug took it. In particular, he took took French and German, learning them the hard way. He swotted a lot, memorized a lot, stumbled over linguistic obstacles up to the rafters.


Come to that, in the US in those days, where could you find French or German people to talk to for some aural practice?

So you had no choice but to plug away at stilted grammar books, taught usally, to make matters worse, by finicky types out to trip you up for the slightest error in the past-perfect subjunctive of some out-of-the-way irregular verb in French or German. It didn't help that the language books used an arcane Latinized terminology to describe the parts of speech, moods, tenses . . . what have you. What you idiot! Can't you tell that when two relative pronouns occur as objects of the same verb in the imperfect conditional tense, both referring to antecedents of the homo-sapien species, one of which is dative and the other nominal, the latter becomes indirect, and the imperative disjunctive must be strictly used? That is always the case after an indicative imperative infinitive, preceded by either a relative or a possessive pronoun in the familiar second person singular . . . except for the following list of 1111 irregular verbs, all of which you need to memorize with care. Note that the plus que parfait in the subjunctive semi-conditional will require a cedilla under the c when the action being described entails a heterosexual act, but none when the act is clearly homosexual. When it is bisexual, you can choose which way to go.

It's amazing anybody learned a foreign language well that way, no? Who knows, maybe only obsessive-compulsives succeeded?

Fast-forward again to September 2004, in particular that Labor Day weekend. The initial works bought by prof bug at B&N that day led to others, with repeated visits to Amazon online for more search and subsequent purchases. Fed-Ex and UPS seemed to be delivering daily. These online efforts netted three cd-rom versions for interactive work in Spanish on the pc. New dictionaries also followed. A harum-scarum period all right. And in n the process, as it happened, something had to give in prof bug's schedule. You guessed it: the buggy web site.

Until now anyway. By this time, the hyperkinetic urge to push on in Spanish without pause --- save for sleep, exercise, and food --- has slowed down to a more modulated pace, Spanish sounds haunting the buggy dreams (where's the gorgeous senorita?), and hence little story you're reading right now.


Pedant's Pick: Some Advice about Learning Spanish Books and Audio CD's.

Meanwhile, since this auto-de-fe about Spanish has gone on far longer than I had intended, prof bug might just as well turn pedant briefly --- after all, it's about the only thing he's done for decades --- and give you a run-down of the learning materials he's been using. Who knows? It might be useful to some of you visiting this site. Even if you're interested in learning languages other than Spanish --- or improving your knowledge of them --- you'll be able to find similar materials for them too.

By far the best way to get into the language I know of --- or back into it if you've the basics thanks to past study --- is also one of the cheapest as it turns out: a book and audio-cd set called Improve Your Spanish by Juan Kattan-Ibarra, part of the Teach Yourself series put out by McGraw-Hill. (See this link). It's remarkably well done. Kattan-Ibarra, a Chilean trained in this country and Britain, has put together conversations in Spanish along with easy-to-digest grammatical comments that are organized around certain shared themes: work, daily events, vacations, leisure time, searching for lodging, travel, and the like. There are also additional listening exercises on each track of the two CD's . . . and all this for $20 or so!

Mind you, the book-and-cd set assumes a basic knowledge of Spanish. You'll be instantly lost without it. If an introduction is what you're after, try one of Kattan-Ibarra's other book-and-cd sets on learning Spanish, The one I also purchased --- put out in a new edition this summer --- is called Teach Yourself Latin American Spanish Complete Course Click here. It's very effectively organized and starts with the all basics, including oral training right off. To his credit, Kattan-Ibarra knows how to get across basic grammar and syntax in a flowing, easily assimilated form. For those of you at the intermediate level, I'd still recommend the book and cd-set --- also around $20 --- if only because it's good review of Spanish grammar.

An impressive teacher, Juan Kattan-Ibarra. If any of you know him, send him my grateful regards.



There are lots of these too. The best one in my view --- if you can find it --- is Berlitz's Communicate and Connect in Spanish, a 4 cd-rom set. You'll need a microphone for interactive work, and most of the time --- say, 80% --- the mike works pretty well. The other 20% of the time it gets tangled in some cybernetic black hole. The program starts at a basic level, but moves along in time to the intermediate and intermediate/advanced . . . though I'm still in the intermediate stages myself (actually, to be truthful, the advanced part doesn't seem that advanced from the few minutes I've tried it).

The trouble is, you might not be able to find the set. Amazon is sold out, and prof bug has to confess that he bought the last set three weeks ago --- for $10! I can't say why Berlitz hasn't come up with a new edition, but if you want to get the set, you might be able to find one offered by a web software store. Instant Immersion Spanish Deluxe, which costs around $40, is another cd-rom set, and you can find it at any software outlet; but for the most part it isn't as good . . . period. Mainly fun & games, plus some decent oral training; nothing else.

Its gimmick?

Well, whenever you repeat a Spanish phrase or sentence through the microphone, the program compares the rise and fall of your larynx and breathing --- your sound waves --- with that of the Spanish speaker. It's like watching one of those sonar screens featured in WWII submarine films, where Clark Gable or John Wayne is in charge of a US sub that's just sneaked into Tokyo Bay, sunk 3 enemy carriers, and is then being hounded by half the Japanese navy clear across the Pacific. Beep, beep, beep, the screen's rays blipping around as the nearest destroyer propels overhead. Kaboom, kaboom, kaboom as the depth charges explode all around. Not to worry. John and Clark knew what they were up to.

Did the gimmick work?

Not for prof bug. Try as I may --- it didn't matter if I got my mouth one inch from the mike or lay down on the desk and heaved air with a mighty thrust --- my sound waves were never in sync with the Spaniard's. Funny thing is, the playback sounded pretty much the same . . . at any rate, after the 10th or 20th endeavor. And Nancy, my wife --- fluent in Spanish (a Fullbright scholar in the past in Peru) --- thinks I sound pretty decent when I say something in my halting if persistent intermediate-level Spanish. Maybe Instant Immersion Deluxe needs a depth charge or two.


An Oxford PC Program

What is remarkable --- can't stop raving about it --- is the Oxford 3rd ed. cd-rom of the revised Oxford Spanish Dictionary. My oh my. I repeat: if you have grown up in the 1980s or 1990s, you can't imagine how primitive and pedantic language training could be back in the pre-electronic, pre-pc era. Nothing underscores this point more clearly than this version of the Oxford Spanish Dictionary.

The unabridged hard-back version was updated and came out about two years ago, and instead of trading in my earlier edition of the hardback --- about 1900 pages --- prof bug opted for the cd-rom this month. Not only does it allow you, once it's on your pc, to switch easily between the full English and Spanish sections of the hardback version --- complete with often dozens of phrases or sentences under word-headings for practice and careful distinctions in the use of the words --- it allows you to click on a word or whole sentence and hear it spoken back to you in clear Spanish. Nor is that all. You can choose between European Spanish or Mexican Spanish, and the latter --- I can assure you --- isn't your usual street-Spanish: it's spoken by an educated, very articulate Mexican and sounds almost identical to Peruvian or Columbian Spanish.

That's high praise.

Nancy, who spent her Fulbright days doing archealogical work in Peru, continues to use Spanish on the weekends when she drives around Santa Barbara for a visiting nursing agency and treats a fair number of their Hispanic patients. As I say, she's more or less fluent. According to her, educated Peruvians pride themselves on speaking the most lucid and stylish of Spanish --- not just in Latin America but anywhere. Is that the case? Not for prof bug to say, far from it. Note that Kattan-Ibarra, a Chilean with no axe-to-grind, claims the best, most easily understood Spanish is spoken in Columbia. . . though he adds, quickly, that the accent varies around that country. Whether the Spanish or other Latin Americans would agree with either Nancy or Kattan-Ibarra is another matter. Most likely not, huh?

The Spanish, in particular, are known to be touchy about their language and culture. Heaven knows what they think about Mexican Spanish.


Something Else

There's an added attraction of the cd-rom version of the Oxford Spanish Dictionary. It has a program built in called Realspeak, and you can paste in (or type) whole paragraphs or pages that then will be spoken back to you in Spanish --- again, with a choice between a Castilian Spanish-speaker or a Mexican version. Copy a few paragraphs from a Spanish newspaper online, paste it into the program, and presto!, it's read back to you in a voice that is far from being robotic or monotone. It's not perfect, that voice, but damn good all the same, and you can adjust the speed up or down. (If you type in something, you can use the built-in accented Spanish letters in order to get the words pronounced properly.)

To repeat, it's impossible to recommend this cd-rom too much. A remarkable product, however you view it. Those of you learning or practicing other languages might check to see if there are versions for them. Could be anyway.

The only complaint? For Spanish verbs, you have to search under the full infinitive heading. So if you're not sure what podria means ("I could"), you have to know it's the conditional tense of poder, and search under poder itself. Too bad. With a little more work, Oxford could have had the various conjugated forms for, say, 30 or 40 of the most frequently used irregular verbs. Some hardback dictionaries used to do this for German anyway. Maybe one of you works for Oxford Press. Who knows, maybe you're in charge? Whatever, you might take note of this minor gripe for a future edition.


Other Dictionaries

That said, if you want a good mid-size English-Spanish dictionary in hardback form, I'd go for the Harper-Collins fully revised college version. I've always been partial to Harper-Collins (formerly just Collins') language dictionaries. Those in French and German always struck me as the best, unless you wanted to opt for multiple-volume sets put out by Harrap's (for French) or Langenscheidt for German. The College Harper-Collins, which cost $30 in bookstores, is actually available from Powell's in New York for $12, plus shipping. I know. I just ordered it on Monday. It's not a substitute, mind you, for the Oxford cd-rom version, but assuming you get that, then the Harper-Collins book --- which is around 1300 very well organized pages (with clear blue word-headings and good illustrative sentences in the definitions) --- is what I'd recommend as a desk companion, and with bursting enthusiasm.

That leaves a pocket dictionary.

Those tiny mini ones are, essentially, useless. The choice for prof bug came down to the Oxford compact Spanish dictionary (around $11) or a Langenscheidt at $17. The latter --- after comparing some difficult words with multiple uses in Spanish (dar, poder , llegar, etc, and English words like "take up", "take out" etc) --- seemed a better choice, in part because it was as good and detailed as the Oxford compact, mainly though because it has a solid but flexible plastic cover. Then too it has an added virtue: blue word-headings. Though the big Oxford unabridged Spanish dictionary has blue word-headings too, so far it's not the case of the other Oxford Spanish dictionaries ---- concise, pocket, etc.


Oh, One More Inexpensive Book To Recommend:

One other book, nicely priced at $13, to recommend for those at early (or intermediate) stages of Spanish: Barron's Spanish Visual Language Guide. It's well organized and aimed at travelers --- with sections set out for buying tickets and traveling on trains or planes or renting cars or getting hotel rooms or ordering food or buying in stores, whatever; it also has a lot of full sentences that circle around a theme, including with some nifty cartoon drawings of, say, a mechanic at an auto-repair shop talking to the car owner. The big advantage of the book is for learning vocabulary linked to pictures and themes. On top of that, its expressions are idiomatic rather than put in strictly formal language. Too bad there isn't an audio version, though if you have a scanner --- the buggy prof doesn't --- you could always scan a section, then insert it into the Realspeak program in the Oxford cd-rom and have it spoken back to you for training your ear.


Well, a pretty long commentary on buggy prof experiences with basic-and-intermediate Spanish. Hope it's been useful for some of you. As for the series on the US economy comparatively viewed, the buggy prof hopes to get it under way again starting tomorrow.

Replies: 1 Comment

A post outstanding in both instruction and entertainment! It's been a long time since I laughed so much over lunch! It also reminded me of what Churchill said in one of his essays: that the best vacation for an active mind is not mindless travel but taking up a new and challenging hobby.

Posted by Bill Anderson @ 10/01/2004 01:11 PM PST