By Carole Reedy
We learn to ask for what we want by speaking.
“But it is in reading that we enter the intimacy and wonder of language.” Bassia Bar-Chai
“If you don’t read and write in the language, your Spanish will never improve.” These sage words come from the Spanish maestra quoted above who speaks seven languages fluently.
Whether you live in Mexico full-time or part-time or you’re a frequent visitor, you’re likely interested in improving your Spanish even if you don’t engage in formal lessons. Here are some ideas and tips for making Spanish more a part of you and part of your life. One true gift of living in Mexico is that native speakers are so delighted that you want to speak their native tongue that they’re virtually always willing to help foreigners learn.
THE FIRST STEPS
Listening and learning grammar are the first steps. The 14 tenses may seem daunting, but keep in mind practice makes perfect and don’t fret. It will come. However, as the maestra says, you need to do more than study grammar books. Talking and listening are important, but you must read. The process is slow, but that fact alone actually helps improve your cognitive thinking.
As you begin reading in a foreign language rest assured that your conversation skills, writing skills, and listening skills will all improve. One reason for this is that you’ll be reading the same sentence constructions many times over a short period. In addition, the repetition of vocabulary words helps us remember them.
SOME BASIC TIPS
Read material that interests you. A sports fan? Read the Deportes section of the newspaper, online or hard copy. If you’re a cook, look for recipes online in Spanish. (Your family and friends will benefit too!) Politics is a little more challenging to read and understand, partly because Mexican newspaper articles tend to be indirect in sentence structure. If you’re interested in current events, it may be best to start by reading El Pais, the newspaper from Spain. Spanish from Spain is more direct in structure (like English) than Mexican Spanish. Even the good gossip that can be found at any kiosk in Hola and TV Notas magazines can help you toward fluency.
Another hint is to read subtitles in Spanish while watching your favorite movies or sitcoms in English. In Mexico, Sky, and Dish systems offer many programs in English with Spanish subtitles.
READING FICTION, POETRY, AND DRAMA
Reading novels not only helps improve your vocabulary, they’ll heighten your understanding of the Hispanic world. Here are a few suggestions for your reading pleasure. If you’ve read them in English, try them now in Spanish. Perhaps you’ll find, as I did, that you enjoy them even more in their original language.
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel A perfect book for understanding the subjunctive mood. The smells and tastes of the Mexican kitchen and cuisine make this tale of Mexico a most enjoyable feast for the senses.
The novelas of Gabriel Garcia Marquez Marquez, who creates a world that is purely Hispanic, can hardly be read in another language. Once you succeed in reading his shorter novels, tackle 100 Years of Solitude, which must be read in Spanish in order to feel and fully understand the magical realism.
Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca, Sor Juana, and Pablo Neruda Three of the great Hispanic poets, each from a different time and place in the world, but writing with the same passion. Try these even if you’re not normally a reader of poetry.
Federico Garcia Lorca’s works include Bodas de Sangre, La Casa de Bernalda Alba, and Yerma (drama works) and several anthologies of poetry. A member of the Generation de ’27, Lorca was executed at the age of 38 by the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. Though his writing career was relatively short, his works were and remain influential.
An aside: If you are interested in the Spanish Civil War, visit the photography exhibit at the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso on Justo Sierra 16, Centro Historico, D.F. Called La Maleta Mexicana (the Mexican Suitcase), it is an exhibit of photographs by Roberto Capo, Chim and Gerda Taro, capturing the conflict that changed the course of the history of Europe. There are many information plaques to read about the photographers themselves and the history of that time. Just another enjoyable way to improve your language skills!
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695) See The Eye’s March 2013 issue for more information about this amazingly strong Mexican woman and her poetry.
Pablo Neruda Considered one of the most influential poets of the 20th century, Chilean Neruda writes beautiful love poetry. Start by reading his Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada.
Spanish novelist Javier Marias writes a column each Sunday in the El Pais magazine section. Apart from being a writer and novelist, Marias is a translator, which gives him a heightened understanding of language. His novels are not difficult to read in Spanish, and yet they’re engaging and intelligent, full of twists and turns.
Leonora by Elena Poniatowski
A novel tracing the fascinating life of famous surreal artist Leonora Carrington, who was born into and raised in England by a well-to-do family and an overbearing father. She ran off to France and Spain before finally pursuing her painting career here in Mexico. The novel is full of history and famous people and will help you better understand Mexico and its language.
One last word of advice from our maestra Bar-Chai: “When you find a word you do not know (and wish to understand better), underline it in the book in light pencil and come back to it at the end of you reading session for the day, look it up, and look back to the page where it appeared. I have also written pencil lists at the back of the book on the last blank pages. These words will last in your memory (and yes, people over 30 do still have such!). If you love the ideas and sentiments, you will love the author and find the work a gift to yourself.”