Writing in a Foreign Language


I’ve always loved writing.  At my parents’ house, there are still boxes under my bed, full of notebooks I filled with half-written stories and ideas.  I have tons of files on my old computers and on my flash drive with more stories and essays.  I’ve changed my mind several times on what I like to write most, but I’ve never fallen out of love with writing.  I’ve done it my whole life, and I’m not planning on stopping anytime soon.

Since I’ve had so much practice with writing, especially for school, I like to think I’m fairly good at it.  Since I learned to write a five-paragraph essay, structured, written thought has come fairly easily for me.  When I first began writing serious papers, it took me awhile to get to the point I wanted to make.  I would have to go through several rounds of edits to shorten and clarify my thoughts.  But as I did it more and more often, it got easier.  Now, if an assignment requires an essay, I can crank out a pretty good paper within a few hours to a day.  While I might make a few changes afterward, I typically say all I need to say with relative ease.  (Of course, every piece of writing could use some editing.  But when I also have to block out time for other things, a few hours to a day for a fairly high-quality essay is pretty good.)

But that’s all for essays I write in English.  With Spanish, I’m finding it’s a different story.  Throughout my Spanish classes, I’ve had to write a ton of papers.  They started out short and simple, as ways to practice vocabulary, sentence structure, and specific grammar rules.  As I got farther along, they began to get more complex.  They became less about practicing the language and more about engaging with the culture.  I learned more vocabulary, and essays in Spanish started to get almost as easy as essays in English.

Almost is the key word here, though.  I got fooled into thinking I knew Spanish well enough to use the same one-day process I use for English papers.  So last weekend, that’s how I wrote two papers for my capstone — one Saturday, one Sunday, and done.  Then a few days later, I got them back from my faculty adviser, and while overall the papers were okay, my grammar was all over the place.  I figured out very quickly that I need to take a few steps back in my writing process for Spanish papers.  Ideally, here’s how it should go:

  1. I need to make a list of grammar mistakes I make often, using already-graded papers as a reference.
  2. Start the paper at least a week before the due date.  (This means I need to be diligent about finishing the books I’m supposed to be writing about on time, too.)
  3. Take one or two days to write it, and then let it sit for a day or two.
  4. Read back through the paper, fixing any glaring mistakes, and polishing it if need be.  Make sure I’ve put everything in the paper that is required.
  5. Go over it again, this time with my list of common mistakes, and fix those.
  6. Finally, either run through a grammar checker or have someone else look over it.  Or maybe even both.

It’s a much longer process than my one-and-done style.  But it will help me write better quality papers.  And I think that the more Spanish I read, the better my writing skills will get.  That’s a big part of how I learned to write well in English, after all.  It makes sense that it would work that way in Spanish.

Spanish: More Than a Language

Since I first mentioned my Spanish capstone project on this blog, it’s changed a bit.  Not drastically — my overall focus is still immigration, and I’m still reading a lot of books.  But even though I’m still fine-tuning my thesis statement, I’ve already learned something valuable.

For background: I’m white.  I grew up in a two-parent home.  Both my parents are college-educated, and they have always earned sufficient income to give me and my two siblings everything we need, plus extracurriculars such as 4H, music lessons, and summer camps.  Spanish language and culture has been an interest of mine since I was 8, and my parents had the means to allow me to learn.  Now, I’m about to graduate college with a Spanish degree, with a highly commendable command of the language.  I’m proud of this.  And I’m grateful.

More background: for my capstone, I’m mostly focusing on the work of Esmeralda Santiago.  Santiago, if you don’t know, is a Puerto Rican woman who moved with her family to the US when she was 13.  She did not speak much English when she arrived.  It was not her choice to move here, so unlike me, learning English wasn’t something she did for fun, or because it was interesting, or because she had dreams of being able to speak other languages.  Santiago learned English because she couldn’t have survived here without it.

It hit me, as I was reading Santiago’s two memoirs, that for me, Spanish is a luxury.

I have worked hard at learning Spanish.  I’ve worked hard for confidence and accuracy.  Languages come fairly naturally to me, but it hasn’t all been easy or fun.  I’ve continued my study of Spanish just as much to gain an advantage in the job market as I have because I enjoyed it.  But that is the difference between Santiago, and every other Spanish-speaking immigrant, and I — I had a choice.  I chose to study Spanish because I could, not because I had to.  And I was not thrown into the Spanish-speaking world before I was ready.

One of my old roommates was also a Spanish major.  She now works at a refugee resettlement organization, and teaches Spanish to kids after school.  She uses Spanish all day, every day.  Spanish, for her, is a talent and a passion, but also a way to do what she really wants to do, which is care for people.  While Spanish may have started as an interest for her, now it is entwined with her purpose.

Honestly, that is my goal too.  I want to be able to use Spanish in my daily life.  One, because I enjoy it, and I’ve spent a lot of time learning it, but also because it enables me to expand the circle of people to whom I can be useful.  Being able to speak Spanish opens me up to other parts of the world, and by extension those I’m connected with.

A few posts ago, I put up a graph of the results from a personality test I took.  I scored very high on the “dutiful” aspect, which makes sense.  When I realized that Spanish began as a luxury for me, I felt kind of spoiled.  But then I thought about Bill Gates — his asset, now, is that he is very wealthy, and he puts his money to good use through philanthropy.  While being able to speak a second language is a little different than being worth millions, I can try to turn my own luxury into something that is useful to the world as a whole.

Book Review: The Illustrated Book of Sayings by Ella Frances Sanders


Goodreads Description

Ella Frances Sanders’s first book, Lost in Translation, captured the imagination of readers with its charmingly illustrated words that have no direct English translation. Now, the New York Times-bestselling author is back with an illustrated collection that addresses the nuances of language in the form of sayings from around the world. From the French idiom “to pedal in the sauerkraut,” (i.e., “to spin your wheels,”) to the Japanese idiom “even monkeys fall from trees” (meaning, “even experts can be wrong”), Sanders presents sayings that reveal the remarkable diversity, humor, and poignancy of the world’s languages and cultures.

I haven’t traveled a whole lot, but I want to.  And in an ideal world, I’m the kind of person who would rather take two or three weeks and rent an Airbnb and shop at the local market and cook my own food — live in a place for awhile rather than tour it as a viewer.  But this is not an ideal world — who has the time or money for that?  Luckily, I found this book, which is probably as close as I will get to living in many foreign cultures.

The Illustrated Book of Sayings is both a brief and an intimate look at 52 cultures from around the world.  Sanders picks an idiom from a language, and spends around 150 words explaining the meaning, and where it comes from.  Whimsical illustrations accompany each idiom.  If this sounds at all boring or dry, I’m doing a bad job of explaining.  Sanders dips her toe into linguistics (which as a word nerd, I loved), but also relates the idiom to some idiosyncrasy of the people who use it.  It makes you feel like you’re in that country for a moment, chatting with the natives.

Plus, wordy facts aren’t all you get.  Many idioms are animal related, and Sanders seems to enjoy adding animal facts along with her explanations.  For example, did you know that “one of the largest members of the pelican family — the Dalmatian pelican — lives in Denmark”?

Sanders’ explanations are as informative as they are quirky.  And if you just really, really hate reading, you can at least have a fun time looking at the illustrations.  This is a great book to keep on the coffee table to flip through on the days you are too broke to buy a plane ticket.

I received this book from Waterbrook Multnomah’s Blogging for Books for free in exchange for this honest review.


Am I Bilingual Yet?

There’s a point when you study a foreign language where you find yourself wondering, could I be considered bilingual?  As in, could I put this on my resume?  On job applications?  (More importantly, can I throw the words “I’m bilingual” into a conversation and thus feel like a total badass?)  What is the point where one goes from a learner of Spanish to a Spanish speaker?  Of course non-native speakers will always have a learning curve, and of course it will be different for everyone, but where does one draw the line?

If you count every single Spanish class I’ve ever taken, beginning in middle school, I have taken at least 2 years of grade-school Spanish (but probably more because I’ve taken so much Spanish it all blurs together), plus a little in high school, plus seven semesters of college level Spanish.  I’ve gone from being barely able to tell time to analyzing Spanish literature and researching historical Spanish events in Spanish.  Then, this past summer, I went to Costa Rica for four weeks.  Because of this, I went from a halting speaking rate and about a 50% understanding rate to being able to understand 99% of what is said to me in Spanish, and being able to respond fluidly without having to think about what I am going to say.

That being said, though I can speak and conduct business in Spanish if I need to, my grammar isn’t always perfect, especially orally.  I confuse tenses and forget vocabulary.  Different accents are hard to understand.  But on the basic level, I know enough to be able to converse, read, and write in Spanish, if imperfectly, if slowly.  I can communicate passably, even well.  Does all that make me bilingual?  Or must I wait until I have an even higher level of proficiency?  Am I putting a higher standard on myself than someone else would, or am I jumping the gun wanting to describe myself this way?

Maybe, in the end, it doesn’t even matter.  Maybe all that matters is that I truly enjoy Spanish, and using it makes me happy.  Words are my passion, and what is really thrilling is that by learning Spanish I have vastly expanded the amount of people I can talk to, and read, and learn from.  I’ve opened myself up to dozens of entirely new cultures and opportunities just by learning one other language.  So I guess it doesn’t really matter whether or not I’m technically bilingual.  What matters is that I am ever, as my dad would say, expanding my horizons.

Spanish and American Girl (or, How My Spanish Obsession Began)

It’s no secret that I’ve always loved to read.  You don’t have to know me for very long before my love of books comes out. What isn’t as obvious is how many of my other passions stem from books — almost all of them, actually.
Spanish was the among the first.  When I was a girl, I devoured historical fiction — think The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963, Johnny Tremain, and the Dear America series.  My absolute favorites, though, were the American Girl historical characters.
Oh, those books.  The entire American Girl company, in fact, is in my mind synonymous with my eighth through twelfth years.  I waited breathlessly for the glossy catalogs that came every three months full of shiny, beautiful dolls.  I tore through the magazine, which was a smorgasbord of short stories, recipes, and tips on everything from friends to hairstyles. But mostly I loved the books.
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There were eight original historical characters — one from World War II, one from the Depression, one from the Revolutionary War, even a Native American — that all had their own stories.  The books, rather than being the accessory to the dolls, were essential to the dolls’ very existence.  Each book was formatted the same way — each character had an introduction, a school-related story, a Christmas story, a birthday story, a summer story, and a final winter story, in that order.  It was so interesting to compare each characters’ stories.  They all paralleled, but each character had her own life, her own personality, and learned her own lessons.  (And each doll had outfits and accessories that matched the illustrations in the books, which to eight-year-old me was the epitome of magic.)
(I don’t consider myself a purist, but I am when it comes to these books.  It has been over ten years since I was eight, and now, of course, the books have been updated.  In my opinion they are nowhere near as magical and amazing as they were when I read them.  The titles have been changed and some characters have even been taken out and replaced with new ones.  But that’s a rant for another day.)
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She’s been loved so much she’s missing an arm. (But hey, now she’s like Bethany Hamilton, who I first read about in an American Girl magazine, by the way.)
My favorite character was Josefina, who was a Mexican girl living in what would one day be the state of New Mexico.  Her way of life fascinated me.  She was the only character with sisters close to her own age, and I imagined that she and her sisters were me and mine.  But unlike my family and the rest of the characters, she spoke Spanish.
There were only a few words and phrases scattered throughout the books, but that was enough to hook me.  I wished I could speak another language so badly that I would make up words for my doll to speak.  When we started learning basic Spanish vocabulary in elementary school, I was thrilled.  From about second grade to senior year, I took Spanish classes off and on, and I continued more intensively once I began college classes.  I actually began to be able to read Spanish, write Spanish, speak Spanish, and understand it.  A lot of the time it was more frustrating than fun.  But it was worth it, because about a month ago I was finally ready for the fun part — living in a Spanish-speaking country.
Five days ago, I got back from Quepos, Costa Rica, where I spent four weeks with a host family.  In a word, it was incredible.  The food was amazing, the land was gorgeous, and the people were so pleasant.  I was forced to use the language every day, even when I didn’t feel like it, and both my confidence and my command of the language made incredible growth.  Even when my Spanish wasn’t grammatically perfect, I was able to communicate.  As a result, I feel much more comfortable using Spanish in real life situations, and I know I’ll be much better at my upcoming Spanish classes at school.
But in addition to that, a dream that began with a book is now coming true.  Eight-year-old me wanted something.  High school me really began to work at it.  College-age me kept going, even when Spanish felt impossible.  And now, I’m at a workable level — not a perfect speaker, by any means, but I can hold a conversation and do business just like I can in English.  A whole other world has been opened up to me, and it all began with a book.