Eight Things I Can Now Competently Do in Spanish… and Five I Still Can’t

It’s often hard to know how much progress you’re making with a language, since the incremental daily changes are near-impossible to measure as they happen. We don’t walk around going, “hey, my vowels sound just a little better today than they did on Tuesday!” Language development is a long-term process, something that happens over months rather than hours. Still, there are times when I manage to do something or make some point in a conversation that I know would have been absolutely impossible for me a year or even three months ago. These are the moments when I realize that I am still progressing, that my Spanish hasn’t stagnated at good-enough-to-buy-bus-tickets-but-not-good-enough-to-win-an-argument-about-homophobia (which, for the record, is right about where it is right now. But onwards! And upwards!). It’s important to acknowledge these little victories, if only for the fact that it keeps me motivated and hopeful that I can keep improving, every day.

A few of the things I can now accomplish in Spanish:

  1. Get something notarized without ruining any important paperwork (I am most self-impressed by this one. It’s a very confusing process, even in English!)
  2. Translate answers to questions as someone is speaking — again, without ruining anything important.
  3. Get from Bogotá to Manizales using three taxis, a plane and a bus without getting lost or ripped off.
  4. FedEx a document (to be fair, at this point I could probably fill out a shipping label in my sleep. Or in Mandarin).
  5. Get a haircut and actually have it turn out pretty much exactly as I want it.
  6. Explain why I’m a vegetarian and have people actually understand it. Insofar as most Colombians understand the concept of vegetarianism (anything more than “So you don’t like meat?” is progress).
  7. Give directions that are at least intended to be helpful and accurate.
  8. Take a yoga class without looking like a confused fool.

A few things I still can’t do:

  1. Make good jokes.
  2. Win the aforementioned argument about homophobia.
  3. Correctly write dates without double-checking the order of the days and months.
  4. Convince my attractive co-worker that I am obviously the perfect woman. Then again, I couldn’t do this in English, either.
  5. Explain American football.
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The Bogotálogo: My Personal Guide to Bogotá Spanish

Aside

On the recommendation of a friend, I picked up this absolutely awesome book at an author’s event last week (which, incidentally, was held at the most insanely nice private school here in Bogotá — the library looked like Colombian Hogwarts or something). It’s called Bogotálogo: Usos, Desusos y Abusos del Español Hablado en Bogotá (Uses, Disuses and Abuses of the Spanish Spoken in Bogotá), and it is HILARIOUS. It’s a really comprehensive, beautifully designed guide to all kinds of Bogotá slang, from the traditional to the very dirty, filled with vintage photos of people and places in Bogotá from the early 20th century. The author, Andrés Ospina, has worked for a while in radio here in Bogotá, and he’s incredibly witty, which clearly shows through the often-sarcastic definitions he provides for words and phrases (in the front of my book, he wrote “A little piece of my humble hometown. I’m sure it will help to worsen or ruin your Spanish.” What a guy!).

Personally, despite his insistence, I’m pretty sure it’s going to help my Colombian Spanish a hell of a lot. It’s already been a huge hit with the other teachers at school — the other day, we locked the students out of the teachers’ room and spent an hour reading the definitions to each other, and they’ve been quick to add words or phrases they insist are missing (this is how I learned how to say “spooning” in Spanish! Which will be endlessly useful, I’m sure). In any case, it’s worth a look, especially for anyone else in Colombia, or anyone with some interest in Spanish linguistics.

Here’s the link to the site, which lists most of the definitions (in Spanish, of course. Sorry, monolingual friends!). Enjoy!