Learning spanish: Grappling with gerundios

Dancing in the Fountain: Grappling with gerundios

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American author Karen relays her experience of learning Spanish later in life and coming to terms with its 14 tenses, imperatives, infinitives, gerundios and past participles.

"What do you think?" my husband Rich said, "if we spend a month or six weeks in one of those intensive courses, we should be able to learn enough Spanish to get by."

I thought he was being a trifle overoptimistic. If you've ever studied a foreign language, especially well past college age, as we are, you'll know it requires a considerable amount of time and effort.

Rich and I arrived five minutes late for our first Spanish class and spent the next five years trying to catch up. Our fellow students were mostly twenty-something Europeans who already spoke half a dozen languages and found Spanish almost laughably easy to acquire.

Meanwhile I was setting the alarm earlier every morning, huddling under the covers with cups of tea and books and homework as I attempted to make sense of the complexities of Spanish verbs.

"Do you realize Spanish verbs come in" – I counted them up – "fourteen tenses, plus a gerund and a past participle?"

"What's a gerund?" asked Rich, whose early English grammar classes had not been quite as rigorous as those I'd attended at the Paris-based Convent of the Sacred Heart. This helped me face up more easily to certain unwelcome realities, such as that every noun has a gender and you have to learn it.

"And according to this, the imperative isn't a tense, it's something called a mood." I felt it was highly unfair that the verbs were allowed to have moods, while I was expected to remain cheerful throughout a day spent in the company of condescending kids.

At school, our teachers patiently put us through various exercises, but while our fellow alumnos (students) all seemed to have hundreds of vocabulary words on tap, Rich and I were still struggling to distinguish pollo (chicken) from pelo (hair) and perro (dog). Our exchanges usually went something like this:

Teacher, holding up a picture: "Que hace ella?" (What is she doing?)
Me, after a long pause: "Cepilla su pollo?" (Brushing her chicken?)
Rich, after a longer pause: "Camina su pelo?" (Walking her hair?)

Dancing in the Fountain: Grappling with gerundiosWe'd usually begin the second half of class with conversation, which was pretty limited. The teacher would start by asking, say, about our impressions of Seville. "Es una ciudad bonita," one of the European youths would toss out. (It's a beautiful city.) "Mucho bonita," I would add. (A lot beautiful.) "Sevilla," Rich would chime in, catching the ball but not exactly running with it.

Our fellow alumnus also seemed entirely unmoved by such shocking revelations as the fact that there are two different words for "for" and two different verbs that mean "to be." Using the wrong version of "to be" can radically alter the meaning of a phrase.

Broadly speaking, the verb ser is used for permanent states, such as your nationality, and the verb estar for conditions that may change, such as your state of health. For instance, you would use the ser form to say "Es Rodríguez," meaning "He is Rodríguez" or "His last name is Rodríguez." However, because the name Rodríguez is as common in Spain as Smith is in the US, in Andalucía it has given rise to another phrase using estar. To say that someone "está Rodríguez" means "He is temporarily Rodríguez" or "His wife's away and he is going by a false name so he can go out and have a little illicit fun."

It took me a while to realise that our formal lessons were only a prequel to the real work of learning the language: using it in daily life. Speaking Spanish in the classroom was akin to reading the owner's manual of a car and playing arcade games that involve a steering wheel – helpful preliminaries, but at some point you have to start test-driving on real roads.

Dancing in the Fountain: Grappling with gerundios

Listening to Spanish was far more of a challenge than deciphering it on the page. Part of the difficulty lay in the molasses-thick regional accent of Andalucía; it was like studying English in rural Mississippi. The Andalucíans love to talk – at length, at speed, at high volume, and at the same time as everyone else in the room. In their eagerness to talk, they have developed the habit of dropping bits of words, usually their endings. This can be disconcerting, because the endings tell you the gender and number of nouns and the tense or mood of the verb, information that is generally considered useful, if not downright vital, to the listener. Even the simple greeting buenos días (good day) is shortened to buen di or simply buenos, as if to say, "Oh, you know what I mean. Do I really need to spell it out for you?"

Meanwhile, back at the language school, advanced students spoke with fear and loathing of a verb form called the subjuntivo. Peeking ahead in my verb book, I read that the subjuntivo was used to express, among other things, a wish, insistence, suggestion, doubt, fear, joy, hope, sorrow; it should appear after certain conjunctions indicating time and in adjectival clauses if the antecedent... Head spinning, I threw the book down and went out for a walk.

It was only later I discovered the past tense known as the imperfect subjunctive comes in two forms, which can be used interchangeably, and you have to learn both of them. I mean really, who authorised that bit of nonsense? Can't we all just agree to use either estudiara or estudiase when we want to talk about wishing we had studied harder?

Clearly the whole language-acquisition process was going to take more time than we thought. Then Rich had the bright idea of switching to private lessons. Things got much better after that and I decided Rich had the right idea.

The next step was much easier – deciding to fly to Seville to start house hunting, or as five years of language lessons enabled us to say, para buscar una casa


Karen McCann / Expatica

Karen McCannKaren McCann moved to Seville in 2004 and writes about her expat experiences in her new book, Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad. "I loved this book,” wrote Lonely Planet. “I must have laughed aloud at least once in every chapter . . . The advice in the book is terrific." Wanderlust has taken her to more than thirty countries, including many developing or post-war nations where she and her husband volunteer as consultants to struggling microenterprises. Today, she spends her time writing, blogging, painting, exploring Seville, and traveling the world.


Photo credit: Art Of Backpacking (photo 2), olgaberrios (photo 3).

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