Keeping it up

You study abroad, you learn a language and you promise to yourself and all the friends you met that you will keep the language up when you get home. You look up when the local language exchanges are and start thinking who you know in your city that speaks Spanish/Chinese/French etc…but in reality

It’s REALLY HARD to keep up a language when you’re not surrounded by it 24 hours a day.

When I left China I sent lots of Chinese books and magazines home, I subscribed to lots of Wechat accounts that regularly post in Chinese and said to myself that I would maintain my Chinese blog, to keep up my essay writing. Have I?

Not really.

Keeping up a language is probably harder than learning a language in the first place…even though you know the language, can get by and communicate with people in that language, when you leave that country, it’s hard to even have the same conversations.

For example a common conversation in China would be when the Didi driver called to ask where I was. This meant I got good at giving directions, explaining which road to turn down and learning the names of roads, supermarkets and schools to guide the driver and tell him where I was (even though I would always be at the spot I selected on the map and he has the map on his phone in front of him).

Switch back to living in the UK, and if I go to a language exchange, directions will probably never come up in conversation, and I’ll never say 你到底在哪儿? (where exactly are you?) in the same way again. So that vocabulary will gradually disappear and get pushed to the back of my mind.

I have read some wechat articles, and have posted one new blog post since coming back, but it’s not enough and I really feel I should be investing more time in my language skills, both Spanish AND Chinese.

How do you maintain your level of language when you’re not living in that language environment?


Misheard Lyrics (Spanish)

A few weeks ago I posted about some of the misheard lyrics I’ve heard in Chinese. I also speak Spanish, so here are my best/worst examples of misheard Spanish lyrics.

‘Juan caramelo’

Me and my friend used to sing this in secondary school, as there was a cute language assistant at school called Juan. We thought the song said ‘Juan caramelo‘ (caramel Juan), but how wrong were we?! The song is actually ‘Guantanemera’ and it’s areally big Cuban song that is written about a girl from the city of Guantanemo, it’s been covered by lots of artists and this is one of my favourite versions.

‘El taxi’ ~ Osmnani Garcia ft Pitbull

If you’ve ever been with me at a Spanish party when this song comes on, you’ll know how much I love it! I thought the lyrics were yo yo yo me paré el taxi, yo yo yo yo yo me paré el taxi, (it was me, me me me who stopped the taxi…something to be proud of right?) but it’s actually cho cho chofer pare el taxi, cho cho cho cho chofer pare el taxi (driver driver diver, stop the taxi). And it’s not only me, there are loads of Spanish articles online about locals making this mistake too.

‘La polla amarilla’ ~ Chico Trujillo

Truly the best band I’ve ever seen live, this Chilean band is really great. Their song La Pollera Amarillla is inspired by Alexis Sanchez, pollera being the Chilean word for a shirt (the [wonder child] in the yellow [football] shirt). But I heard it as ‘la polla amarilla’, which if you know Spanish will be very funny – literal translation = the yellow hen, real life translation = the yellow p*nis.

Have you made any of these mistakes?

Let me look that up

I’ve been studying languages for a long time (over 20 years in fact, because I’m still learning my native language English) so I’m pretty used to using dictionaries. I’ve had lots of foreign language dictionaries in the past and still do, from school learners dictionaries, to picture dictionaries, pocket dictionaries and native language dictionaries. So I always have a lot of choices when I meet a new word.

As now I’m focusing on Chinese language, I usually turn to Pleco when I don’t know a word. It’s a very useful app, where if you don’t know how to type the Chinese character, you can draw it and the app will recognise it. Pleco is a very useful tool for all Mandarin learners, and it has some pretty good translations of Chinese idioms too.

Lately, my vocabulary book has gone into overdrive and the words are colour-coded according to which text book they came from: comprehensive, listening, oral, reading and writing.

A few of my teachers have seen me looking up vocabulary on Pleco, and have told me that now I’m at an advanced level, I should be looking up unknown vocabulary in Chinese, not in English because the translations aren’t always right and there are some subtle differences with some words: for example, in English referee and judge are two different words, but in Chinese, 裁判 can be used to describe both of these. It’s also true that some things just don’t have a handy translation, try telling me what 辛苦你了 translates as!

Baidu dictionary app
Baidu dictionary app

This is not the first time this has happened. In our final year of university, in our Spanish translation classes, we were not allowed to use Spanish-English dictionaries, and instead were all made to download the RAE dictionary (the Spanish equivalent of the Oxford dictionary). We all reluctantly did this, but secretly would go home and check Wordreference when completing our homework.

Our teachers are right, looking up a word in an English- foreign language dictionary is a bit lazy. We just look at the first or second word and take it as it is, without question, but when we look up a word in a native language dictionary, it gives us a better understanding of the word and using our brain to figure out the meaning is better than just remembering what it seems like in our own language.

There are some difficulties in looking up words in a native language dictionary: synonyms. Imagine you don’t know the word ‘enormous’, you look it up and the definition says ‘huge’, but you realise you don’t know what ‘huge’ means either. You turn to , find huge only to find that the definition is ‘enormous’ – what do you do then? This is a problem I’ve found when looking things up in my 现代汉语词典. I’m trying though, and as I’m learning over 250 new words each week (yes I’m keeping track this semester), as my vocabulary expands, I’ll be able to use the Chinese – Chinese dictionary better than I am doing now.

What do you think about looking up unknown words? Do you prefer to use your own language to understand, or do you use a native speaker’s dictionary?

RidiCULOus* Spaniards

It seems that Spanish people are obsessed with a certain body part – they talk about it over dinner, they touch each others and moan if they don’t have one. The spanish word is culo, meaning bum, bottom, ass, rear end or however else you choose to call it.

It’s not a sexist thing, in fact the women are worse when it comes to taking about and touching other people’s bums. I am not exaggerating when I say that I hear the word culo every single day.

Once in the queue for the cinema my host Mum told me to look at the woman in front of us. At first I didn’t see anything strange about her, besides her zebra print playsuit; then she told me to look at her culo. Imagine a normal bum, but lifted way too high and pumped with something to make it look as hard as a rock and stick out. The zebra stripes helped to disguise it, but my host family’s hawk like eyes were drawn to look at her bum whilst the English au pair was looking at what else was on at the cinema.

The little boy I look after is 8 and he loves to eat. It seems a lot of his food goes to his bum so all summer I have been hearing people say (about him)

  • “¿Has visto que culo tiene?” Have you seen the bum on him?
  • “Pero, mira que culo tiene más bueno” But look, what bum better than his?
  • “Ñam ñam ñam, mmmm que culo, madre mía.” Nyam nyam nyam, mmmm what bum, oh my.

Family members and friends of the family also just casually approach him and start squeezing his cheeks and it’s never an issue. There was also an incident last year when the kid’s auntie started squeezing my culo in the swimming pool as she thought I was him. That was definitely more awkward for me than for her.

The other week I met a girl who is 16/17, we were at the swimming pool and all of a sudden she stood up, turned around and said

Look! Look at my bum, I don’t have one, all I have is cellulite. I want my friend’s body, she’s so skinny and has the best bum. But she said that she wanted my body. I was like whatever, give me yours!

I didn’t know how to react, so I just stayed quiet while her Mum told her not to worry, that she is beautiful how she is. I’ve now passed my teenage years and I remember complaining with friends about the amount of barely visible black heads on our faces or how our stomachs weren’t flat and toned as the people on The O.C. Never did we twist our necks to compare bums. Also, she most definitely doesn’t have a trace of cellulite, she was over reacting.

The children also have a game called CaraCulo (Bum face) which is a boxing ring where you punch the other players’ faces to send their bum flying out of the ring.  If you want to earn more lives, you punch your own bum. Can you imagine the outrage British parents would have if this game were to be released in the UK? Here is a Youtube commercial for the game so you can see it for yourselves.

Part of me is embarrassed when people start talking about culos and ask me to join in the conversation. I also wonder what they think and say about mine when I’ve left the room! At the end of the day I think it is funny when Spanish women talk about culos and I just giggle to myself, like the Minions in Despicable Me 2.


*I don’t think the Spanish are ridiculous, it was just the best word I could think of that had the word ‘culo’ inside of it.

Am I fluent in Spanish?

I have been studying Spanish for over 10 years, including a year that I spent living in Chile (a Spanish speaking country). It is fair to say that I get asked the above question a lot by others who know my background. I am also constantly asking myself this question because of the different connotations of the word fluent in our society. 

Vocabulary Fluent
For a long time, I assumed that people who are fluent in other languages knew how to say absolutely every word in that given language; that you could ask them how to say something obscure such as Arachibutyrophobia and they would instantly be able to tell you how to say it in Spanish. Throughout high school I was envious of these vocabulary fluent people (whoever and wherever they were) and wondered how great it would be to be able to reel off words on demand.

I have spent the past 10 days reading a Spanish novel and on every single page I have underlined at least two words that are new to me. That’s a lie. It’s at least three new words per page that I’ve underlined. The book is 350 pages long, so at this rate I will have encountered over 1000 new words by the time I finish. It is safe to say that vocabulary fluent I am definitely not. Not even in my native language English do I know what the above word means, so to proclaim that I am vocabulary fluent in Spanish would be utterly ridiculous considering the amount of words I don’t know in my own language and the amount of words that are underlined in the Allende book I am reading.

Fluent in Writing
For me, people who are fluent in writing have a given knack for writing in languages (including their own). They can write articles, presentations, messages etc whilst thinking in the target language, which gives them that edge that others lack. When you write in the language you are thinking in, the texts flows which of course is a word that goes alongside “fluent”.

I think I am almost fluent in writing Spanish (please note that I am definitely not fluent in any way when it comes to Mandarin!) because when I write in Spanish I definitely think in Spanish. I write what I want to express and then check for grammatical errors and typos after, just as I do when writing in English.

Fluent in Speaking
Fluent speakers of other languages are brilliant. They can talk easily to other people, without embarrassment or pausing to think through the structures of their sentences. Words and expressions just flow (there’s that word again) from their mouth and even if they make some mistakes, they are understood by others. They speak what they think and they think in the language they are talking in.

I think when I lived in Chile, by the end of my year I was fluent in speaking, as it was my main form of communication with people and I was speaking Spanish all the time. My initial shyness and fear of making mistakes had to be overcome, talking in Spanish was the best (and only) way of communicating day to day. When I returned to England, some Spanish phrases (buenos días, ven aquí) were still stuck in my mind and it took time to readjust to speaking English again.

However now I am not fluent in speaking Spanish. I remember my Mexican friend helping me prepare for my Spanish oral exam after the Easter holidays and he told me my Spanish had gotten worse, that I couldn’t pronounce my rrrrrrrr’s and that he could see that I was thinking in English and translating. I’m not sure what happened over the Easter holiday, but my spoken Spanish definitely took a turn for the worse. From my first oral exam in December to my second one in May, my oral grade dropped by over 20 points, despite practising several times a week with various native Spanish speakers. Now I am living in Spain and my spoken fluency is improving as I think in English less and find ways to express myself in a Spanish way, but I still have a long way to go to become fluent in speaking Spanish.

Dictionary definition fluent
The Collins Dictionary (my favourite one) describes the adjective fluent as

  1. able to speak or write a specified foreign language with facility

  2. spoken or written with facility 

amongst two other definitions that aren’t applicable to this post. So, in regards to this dictionary definition, my answer is yes, I am fluent in Spanish. The myths that people who are fluent in other languages need to know every word and speak and write without thinking are simply myths.

Knowing every word in a language makes you a dictionary and if I am honest, I don’t use dictionaries as much as you would think – they are boring, even if they are colour coded with pretty pictures. Not knowing a word doesn’t mean that I quickly whip out my phone and search for the exact meaning of it. Given the context, I take an educated guess which most of the time works perfectly.

It’s important to realise the differences in culture too when it comes to learning languages. I confuse calabaza (pumpkin) and calabacín (courgette) in Spanish, as they are very similar words and at home I rarely eat pumpkin or courgettes. Similarly, I couldn’t explain very well the differences between apricots and peaches, as for me they are both orange fleshy fruits that are sold in tins. When talking Spanish, somebody may assume that I am not “fluent” as I do not know what apricots and peaches are. But it is just that for me in England, these two fruits are more accessible in chopped, tinned form and I simply don’t recognise them in fresh form.

When it comes to talking with a Spanish speaker, whether written or spoken, yes… I can communicate with facility. So by the definition of my favourite dictionary, I consider myself to be fluent in Spanish. I know that I am not perfect, that I make mistakes every day and that rrrrrolling my R’s is still a challenge. Even in English I say words like whatsamacallit and thingymajigiddy when I forget words. But compared to GCSE Spanish when I memorised sentences and churned them out in the exam, now I am able to think in Spanish and express with fluency my thoughts and feelings.