Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Language Lessons from the Canucks!

Currently, I am taking a couple of classes. The first is an insurance class, and the second is an intermediate-level Spanish class. The insurance class is very dry, the material mostly common sense, and the information is stuff I already know from similar classes I completed in the US. But, if I am to complete my Canadian insurance designation, I still have to complete six more of these classes. The Spanish class has absolutely nothing to do with my job—I just enjoy language, and because I have a bit of a background in Spanish language, I thought I would pick it up again to help stave off Alzheimer’s.

Over the past week, I have learned more about the cultural connections to learning languages than I have in the entire time since I moved to Canada in 2008.

The first story is very disturbing, so you may not want to skip a few paragraphs if you have a weak stomach. Okay, not really, but it was disturbing to me. I was going through my Underwriting Essentials textbook and making notes as a way to study for my upcoming midterm exam. One topic I need to know was the four stages of fire. I started making my little bullet point list. I wrote, “Incipient, smouldering, fire. . .” and then stopped in horror as I couldn’t believe what I had just seen my hand write. Smouldering? SmOUldering??? What was this? My mind began racing—was this how the word was really spelled? Was this how I had always spelled the word? Was this a Canadian spelling, a US spelling, or both? I quickly consulted my handy chart of differences between US and Canadian spelling. The word was not on the chart in any form. My next step was to consult to see if “smoldering” was a legitimate spelling. Without the “u,” it did look odd to me. Sure enough, showed the definition for “smoldering” and I stared at the screen, stunned, as I came to terms with the fact that I had unknowingly began incorporating Canadian spellings.

I have wondered for a while if this would happen, and if it did happen, how long it would take. Apparently the answer for me is two years. I will now sometimes do a double take when I see “neighbor” or “favorite” spelled without the “u.” Since I moved here, I have been using my backspace key, fighting with Microsoft’s AutoCorrect when it adds Us that I didn’t type to words. I’m not sure if I care whether the U is there or not, but I don’t like the computer telling me how I should have spelled words that I already know how to spell.

As someone who usually has no problems with spelling (although the frequent typos in this blog might lead you to believe otherwise), the evidence provided by the smouldering gun was disturbing—I no longer could be confident that I knew how to spell certain words. I’ll soon be reduced to a fragile and shivering shell of my formerly sure-spelling self.

My Spanish class has provided a language experience on a whole new level. Yes, obviously I’m learning Spanish. But, I am now learning Spanish with a bunch of Canucks, and those Canucks add an unexpected aspect to the learning.

Most Americans of my age or younger have had some Spanish language education while in elementary or high school. It just so happens that back in the early 1980s, my third-grade teacher was married to a Uruguayan, and she would often give us mini lessons in Spanish. I also had two years in high school and another year in college (university). Even those Americans who have never taken a formal Spanish class have been exposed to a significant amount of Spanish through bi-lingual labels, signs, pop-culture references, and cultural events. This is almost a direct parallel with the way that most Canadians have some level of French comprehension, whether they’ve taken formal French classes or not.

Before I moved to Canada, I enrolled in a French language class because I thought this would be beneficial for me when I moved. I have never found languages difficult, but I really struggled with French. I couldn’t tell when you pronounced letters, when you didn’t, and why was there no rhyme or reason to emphasizing syllables? Looking back, I am pretty sure that I and all of my classmates pronounced all of the French with Spanish accents. How can I be so sure? Because all of my current classmates in my Spanish class pronounce Spanish with a French accent!

Sometimes my fellow students provide what is, to me, a comical combination of French and Spanish without even realizing it. Phrases such as “mon amigo,” “nouveau casa,” and “Sud America” make me chuckle inside. Each night in class, I am exposed to a new Frenish phrase. I seem to be the superstar of my class because I don’t struggle with the pronunciation of Spanish words—I know to pronounce the letter E when it appears at the end of a word. I think it’s just years of being exposed to Spanish words. The preposition “de,” common in both languages, is pronounced “day” in Spanish. Yet, my classmates cannot seem to break the habit of pronouncing it as “duh,” just as I consistently pronounced it “day” when I was taking French.

In my most recent Spanish class, some interesting biases of the Canadians were revealed which surprised me a great deal. Our teacher was trying to get us to practice using the past tense, so he asked us in Spanish, “What did you do last Saturday?” (¿Qué hiciste el sábado pasado?) When I asked, I responded with “I played ice hockey.” (Jugué hockey de hielo.) Everyone in the class became concerned because they didn’t know what “hielo” meant. The instructor explained that it meant “ice.” A classmate blurted out, “Well, doesn’t that go without saying?”

The vast majority of the world’s population will think “hockey” means field hockey. In fact, that would be the assumption almost anywhere except Canada and parts of the US. And although the Honduran and Venezuelan hockey teams did very well in the last winter Olympics, I think that adding the “ice” descriptor might be beneficial in countries where Spanish is the first language. My filter was off, so I blurted out in response, “Yeah, only in Canada does that go without saying.” I don’t think that statement did me any favors.

Later that night in class, the lady sitting next to me whispered, “Do you think they have any curse words in Spanish? I don’t think they do. They must just be very polite?” My filter was still not on, so I belted out “What?! Are you kidding me?!” which promptly gained the attention of the entire class and the instructor. The instructor, who is from Colombia, also looked a bit puzzled that the student would think that there were no swear words in Spanish, so she explained her question, “Well, we all know all the swear words in French, so I just thought that if there were swear words in Spanish, we would have already known about them.”

At least in Spanish, there aren’t too many words spelled with an “ou” in them. The “ou” spellings in English words are directly derived from French, and the Canucks preoccupation with French languages, for better or worse, indicates that these spellings aren’t going away any time soon. I’m going to have to make an extra effort to keep these language concepts separate in my head, or pretty soon I won’t know how to spell or pronounce anything correctly whether it’s French, English, or Spanish!

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