So chunky you can eat it with a tenedor

Do we learn language according to rules or in repeatable phrases that are trotted out to fit the occasion? To be sure, regular idioms fill up most of our day: How are you?, Good morning, Where is the bathroom? It’s cold out today, What did you do last night? See you later. They’re all familiar phrases, or word chunks, repeated over and over until the meaning sinks in, as comfortable to the language learner as a hot bowl of soup on a cold day.


Of course grammar is important, but the difference between the simple past (I ate) and the present perfect (I have eaten) is confusing to any new language learner. Disguised as pretérito indefinido and pretérito perfecto in Spanish,* it’s a mouthful. But the real joy in language learning is being understood as we fumble for subjects and predicates in correct number and tense trying to translate our minds to our mouths in reasonably engaging conversation. Chunks are essential: ¿Qué tal?, Guten tag, Où est la toilette?, Hoy hace frio, Was hast du gestern abend gemacht?, À bientôt.

A friend of mine living in Berlin once told me that the most important phrase one can learn is “How do you say?” From there, you can build all the language you need. Visiting him for a week, I took his advice, asking “Wie sagt man auf Deutsch?” over and over as I set out on my own rocky road to learning. Wie sagt man fork? – (Gabel). Wie sagt man spoon? – (Löffel). Wie sagt mann knife? – (Messer). Or, if your conversation partner doesn’t speak your language (and doesn’t get too annoyed by your persistence) “Wie sagt man dies?” undWie sagt man das?” with lots of pointing. This and that and lots of pointing got me through beginner’s German.

Backs of cereal boxes** help – wherever one finds the bites. Growing up in Ontario that’s where one learns beginner’s French, rather than in school with its excessive focus on grammar to the exclusion of all else. After 8 years, we could all parse verbs to pass an exam; we just couldn’t use any with confidence in a sentence. Studying at Alliance Française wasn’t much better, where the teachers seemed more interested in talking about their lives than enlisting students to talk about theirs. More correct usage followed on paper, without any real practice.

Most language learners like easy words and phrases to practice: Buenos días, ¿Qué tal?, Hasta luego, No te preocupes. And where better than the headlines of newspapers, magazines, and catalogues to practice – bold and chunky with pictures to add voice to the words? In Spain, there’s ¡Hola!, similar to Hello or a high-brow National Enquirer, with lots of large-print headlines and captioned photo-spreads about the lifestyles of the rich and famous to aid the more nimble. It’s Astérix and Obélix for the jet set.

There are oodles of pictures of model-like princesses and hunky princes (the heir to the Spanish monarchy the Prince of Asturias and his wife Letizia are in every edition***), and the learning is sugared with plenty of spoonfuls of less royal eye candy, though the excessive plastic surgery can be hard to take.

The headlines are not necessarily idioms but they come in easy-to-digest bite-size chunks.

 <<Una de las cosas que más me han motivado durante todo este tiempo han sido los hijos y los nietos de todos nosotros. Pensar en el futuro>>

Simple text with simple context and more than a few clueless aristocrats to look down on. Models, hunks, and the simplest of language bites. It doesn’t get any chunkier.

* Spanish Past Tense Exercises, ISLA.
** The back of the Rice Crispies box was a favourite. When you add milk, the cereal goes “Snap, Crackle, Pop” in English, “Cric, Crac, Croc” in French, and “Knisper, Knasper, Knusper” in German.
*** In the 27 Noviembre 2013 issue, La Princesa Letizia is on the cover in regal cameo and in 24 more photos with her husband on pages 38-50 (8 different outfits). Prince Charles and family are in a photo spread on pages 4-12, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt pages 16-17, the Baronesa Thyssen in full facially operated splendour pages 58-68, and Charlene de Mónaco on page 72. Crisis, what crisis? For the most ridiculous spread, check out Laura Vecino, who appears as the most clueless of the clueless. We do live in the strangest of worlds.
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More translated food for thought: Am I my film maker’s keeper?

Lost in Translation isn’t just a movie, but what happens when we try to map one culture onto another. It’s like a game of Broken Telephone, where what goes in doesn’t always come out the same at the other end. Where’s a good Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Babel fish when you need one?

Here are a few translated films and their countries of origin.*


Risky Business Just Send Him To University Unqualified China
The Spy Who Shagged Me The Spy Who Behaved Very Nicely Around Me Malaysia
The Dark Knight Knight of the Night Mexico
Annie Hall Urban Neurotic Germany
You Only Live Twice 007 Dies Twice Japan
The Cat in The Hat Cat, Don’t Touch This Hat! Croatia
Grease Vaseline Argentina
Lost in Translation Meetings and Failures in Meetings Portugal

No doubt, Bob Harris, the American actor hamming his way through Japanese advertising in Lost in Translation as played by Bill Murray, would have been amused. For the most part, though, Sophia Copola’s film escapes the worst of mangled translations, simply called Lost in Translation in many foreign markets, although in Quebec it was translated as Traduction Infidèle and in Hispanic-America as Perdidos en Tokio.

How did a few other films turn out, say for those of Pedro Almodóvar and Alfred Hitchcock, going from Spanish to English for Almodóvar and vice versa for Hitchcock? Perhaps these two great film makers can help clarify the Spanish-English-Spanish makeover.

Almodóvar’s films are almost exact in their translations, from his first Pepi, Luci, Bom, y otras chicas del montón (Pepi, Luci, Bom) to his most recent Los amantes pasajeros (I’m So Excited). Even when word order might make things tricky, All About My Mother is literal to a point as Todo sobre mi madre. Volver doesn’t change at all, as if challenging English audiences to learn a bit of Spanish, albeit in this case only one word (return). About the only thing that gets translated in an Almodóvar film title are the capital letters. Although, in fairness ¡Átame! gets a Hollywood makeover as Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, extra exclamation point included, and Entre tinieblas becomes Dark Habits.

Hitchcock on the other hand gets a hardier makeover. North by Northwest is the weirdest, becoming With Death On The Heels, and Marnie needs an extra The Thief. Even Psycho gets a slight tweak to Psychosis, lessening the villainy it would seem of a person to a disease. See the table below for more translations with retranslated titles where different (via Google Translate).

Two of the more Almodovarian sounding films The Trouble with Harry and The Wrong Man become But … Who Killed Harry? and False Guilty, although perhaps the most Almodovarian The Man Who Knew Too Much gets a clean bill, yet becomes En manos del destino in Central America and Mexico. In other Spanish-speaking countries, Vertigo is De entre los muertos.

One wonders if it is easier to translate sentiments and ideas of Spanish films into English rather than in reverse, especially when the titles are as direct as Almodóvar’s compared to the purposely oblique thriller titles of Hitchcock.

In this limited survey, it would seem things get changed more by Spanish translators. Is this because of a need to appease the minority culture in the face of the onslaught of world English and the dominance of Hollywood myth making? Food For Thought? Comida para pensar?

Almodóvar Spanish to English

Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón Pepi, Luci, Bom
Laberinto de pasiones Labyrinth of Passion
Entre tinieblas Dark Habits
¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto? What Have I Done to Deserve This?
Matador Matador
La ley del deseo Law of Desire
Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
¡Átame! Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!
Tacones lejanos High Heels
Kika Kika
La flor de mi secreto The Flower of My Secret
Carne trémula Live Flesh
Todo sobre mi madre All About My Mother
Hable con ella Talk to Her
La mala educación Bad Education
Volver Volver
Los abrazos rotos Broken Embraces
La piel que habito The Skin I Live In
Los amantes pasajeros I’m So Excited

Hitchcock English to Spanish (and back where different)

Lifeboat Náufragos Castaway
Spellbound Cuéntame tu vida Tell Me Your Life
Notorious Tuyo es mi corazón Yours Is My Heart
Under Capricorn Atormentada Tormented
Rope La soga The Rope
Strangers on a Train Extraños en un tren
I Confess Yo confieso
Rear Window La ventana indiscreta
Dial M for Murder Para atrapar al ladrón
The Trouble with Harry Pero… ¿quién mató a Harry? But … Who Killed Harry?
The Man Who Knew Too Much El hombre que sabía demasiado
The Wrong Man Falso culpable False Guilty
Vertigo Vértigo
North by Northwest Con la muerte en los talones With Death On The Heels
Psycho Psicosis Psychosis
The Birds Los pájaros
Marnie Marnie, la ladrona Marnie, The Thief
Torn Curtain Cortina rasgada
Topaz Topaz
Frenzy Frenesí
Family Plot La Trama The Plot

* For more translated titles, see Screen Crush and Short List.

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Translation 101: Our many language shores

In his play Translations, the Irish playwright Brian Friel wrote about the difficulty of describing place names in different languages and the meanings for native and visitor alike. Is the ancient local place name Poll na gCaorach (literally “hole of the sheep”) sufficient or does one need Poolkerry as anglicized by the modernizing English mapmakers in his play? How about Drumduff for Druim Dubh, which loses its meaning in translation (“black shoulder”)? Or what of Dublin itself, translated in Irish as Baile Átha Cliath, i.e., Town of the Hurdled Ford. Not quite the same as Blackpool, the Norse-English translation of Dubh Linn (Black Pool).

In Spain, I am noticing more and more translations, some that seem right, others a matter of opinion, as I map out my own new territory here. Especially, the virtual kind as seen in the titles and subtitles (titulos y subtitulos) to films and television shows.

Some are literal: Without a TraceSin Rastro, others hint at a connection: The Hurt LockerIn Hostile Land. Others try to elicit a meaning, perhaps giving more of the story than originally intended: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance KidDos Hombres y un Destino in the famous Newman Redford buddy film, although the second film in their buddy series The Sting doesn’t quite work as El Golpe. A golpe is a hit, which for a Hollywood film suggests a film about murder and assassins. Proof is the story of an infirmed mathematician and his daughter, starring Gwynneth Paltrow, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Anthony Hopkins, but the Spanish title La Verdad Oculta suggests something more sinister. One wonders why Butch Cassidy y la Sundance Kid or Prueba are not sufficient.


Not only titles but the text can be confusingly translated. In Proof, sandbox was given as tobogán, nerds as cerebritos, and glasses (of the drinking kind) oddly translated as gafas instead of vasos. One wonders if a machine translated that one. Describing the wake for Anthony Hopkin’s deceased math professor character, the innocuous “It’ll be nice” was translated as “Será divertido” (“It’ll be fun”). Okay, it’s hard to get these things right, but a nice wake is not the same as a fun wake.

In a commercial for coming attractions, Arnie’s famous line “I’ll be back” in The Terminator was reduced to “Vuelve.” I’ll have to watch to see how Hasta la vista, Baby comes out. Jack Nicholson’s famous “Here’s Johny” turned into “Aqui esta Jack.” Indeed. The Shining itself was El Resplandor, a direct and simple poetic translation.

It’s fun and jarring to see the differences. Idioms are obviously not the same in two different cultures. It can rain cats and dogs in Canada and the U.S., whereas in Spain it rains seas (llueve a mares). In English, “Sitting on your hands” becomes “no te cruces de brazos.” Task force is grupo especial. Charity is ONG. The World Series turns into The Davis Cup. Some words, of course, are untranslatable, and are left unchanged in their new languages. Many are of the food variety: chorizo, fabada, espicha (an Asturian cider fiesta).

Hopefully the humour, the romance, the sentiment is kept, but sometimes the translation comes out better. In Did you Hear About the Morgans?, the state of Connecticut was translated as “100 metres from Fifth Avenue” arguably funnier than the original when Sarah Jessica Parker’s character Meryl Morgan jokes that she never gets far from her Midtown Manhattan home. In the same film, Applebees was McTortillas, Amish was budista, Bloomingdales was rebajas – to me all much funnier than their originals – although the humour of taxidermist with the stress on taxi didn’t quite make it to taxidermista.

Names are fun too. John is one of the most common names around and being of biblical origin is translated into most languages: Juan (Spanish), Seán (Irish), Jean (French), Giovanni (Italian), …. The list is as wide as the world. I love my more mysterious sounding Asturian name, Xuan, where the X is a Sh sound. Most biblical names are also found elsewhere. And flowers. Daisy is Margarita in Spanish. Heather is Brezo. Lovely names, and to me, more exotic in translation.

Some rules help the language learner to take a stab at easy translations, especially when grouped according to type: -ible, -able, -tion, -ist, -ent, and -ant endings comprise over 1000 words. Possible becomes posible, agreeable agradable, conversation conversación, Buddhist budista, decadent decadente, dominant dominante. As Christian Slater’s hotel manager Daryl Timmons in Bobby says “It’s almost like you add an e to the end of every English word.” Not quite. But it’s a start.

Language is owned by all of us, changing, morphing, twisting and turning with every immigrant, ex-pat, and new student. About his latest story, Dublinés, a Spanish graphic comic version of wordsmith extraordinaire James Joyce’s Dubliners, writer Alfonso Zapico said that a lot of readers got the urge to read the original version after reading his adapted translation, although some in Ireland felt that “it’s kind of wrong that the author is not Irish.”*

I’m not so sure. I think the número uno ex-pat supreme himself would have been extremely proud that another language brought readers to his Irish shore.

* Check out “A Not So Comic Journey” Tereixa Constenla, El País, November 13, 2013.
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Teacher, teach thyself

When an English speaker starts to learn Spanish, the hard sounds are the r as in perro and arroz, the j as in jamón and ejemplo, and the g as in Sergio and Gijón. The sounds are a bit guttural, though not as hard as say the ich in High German. A bit of practice (eaten with hamón in Hihón por ehemplo) helps. When you finally get anywhere near native, it’s like a gold star from your teacher. Diez puntos as they say in Spain.HelloThankyouFor the Spanish learning English, the trouble spots are in reverse: the hard j and g as in John and Gibraltar. The s and sh sounds also get mixed up, where a kid’s tongue twister is great practice: “she sells sea shells by the sea shore.” For those of us learning Spanish, try these trabalenguas (tongue twisters): “tres tristes tigres” (three sad tigers) and “el perro de San Roque no tiene rabo” (St. Roque’s dog hasn’t got a tail). Say them fast for full effect.

To be sure, there are language rules, but they seem as much fun as a cavity filling. Knowing the three verb types in Spanish, though, is essential, as in habl-ar, com-er, and viv-ir with the regular –ar, –er, and –ir groupings, from which the first-, second-, and third-person singular and plural follows by stripping off the ending and adding o/as/a/amos/áis/an, o/es/e/emos/éis/en, or o/es/e/imos/ís/en. Fortunately, Spanish is not as inflected as German or Latin—no different verb endings for each of the six cases (nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative, and ablative).*

English is notorious for being full of irregular verbs but again thankfully isn’t as inflected as German or Latin. There is a rule to help Spanish speakers with their English past participles though, which can have only the three sounded endings /t, /d, or /id as in baked, joined, or ended. The /t and /d endings are hard to distinguish even for native English speakers (Does baked end with a /t sound or a /d sound?). But all the /id-sounded endings are from verbs that end with either a letter d or t as in bended or slanted. Easy peasy.**

Of course, the mind doesn’t work through each rule when learning a new language, for example, which of the two main English past tenses to use (or three in Spanish and French). I ate (simple past) or I have eaten (present perfect) come naturally in time.*** There’s just no beating practice, practice, practice. And most will get the meaning if you speak earnestly, apologize, and smile profusely.

In the end, it doesn’t matter a jota whether John F. Kennedy said “I am a jelly donut” in his famous speech at the Brandenburg Gate on June 26, 1961 in support of Berliners everywhere. (Some think Ich bin Berliner is correct and Ich bin ein Berliner is not, since the article is not needed and ein Berliner is a jelly donut.****)

“Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was civis romanus sum [“I am a Roman citizen”]. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner!”… All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner!”

Nor does it matter a jot if I keep messing up my verb endings for a while. I’m hoping I have a few more months before anyone figures out I’m not passing through.

* Mark Twain: “I would rather decline two German beers than one German noun. For an interesting discussion on some thorny German grammar, see The Awful German Language, or, “Deutsche Sprache, Schwere Sprache” in My Year Abroad, January 15, 2008.
** For a pronunciation list of regular English past tense verbs, check out AzarGrammar (Teachers Helping Teachers). Here’s a nice ProProfs quiz as well.
*** In Spanish: the pretérito imperfecto [yo comía] is the simple past [I ate] and the pretérito perfecto [yo he comido] is the present perfect [I have eaten]. In French: l’imparfait [je mangeais] is the simple past [I ate] and the passé composé [j’ai mangé] is the present perfect [I have eaten]. The pretérito indefinido has no English equivalent. I don’t know if that helps, but it’s nice to know that in Asturias, most people use the simple past.
**** For an interesting article, see John F. Kennedy’s Statement “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” was Not Interpreted as “I am a Jelly-Filled Doughnut” Daven Hiskey, Today I Found Out, April 25, 2012. Note that Kennedy used the popular Low-German dialect for I, that is, Ish (as spoken in the nothern “low” lands) rather than the Berliner dialect Ick or the standard High-German Ich (as spoken in the Alps or “high” lands).
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Asturian Cider Stories and other Gijón Excursions

In Asturias, cider (or sidra) is a way of life. There are 22 officially designated apple varieties which can be pressed into almost 100 different brands made by small farmers and larger empresas alike. I can’t say I’ve had every one yet, but I have tried a few.* In Ireland, Guinness is a food group; in Asturias, it’s the sidra.

Wherever Asturians gather, you’ll find sidra and sidrerías, from Gijón (the largest city) to Oviedo (the capital) to every town and village along the coast or south to the Picos Europas and the Castilla y León border. Gijón even boasts its own Guinness record for the most people simultaneously pouring cider. By pouring I mean from a height, arm raised high, glass held low to get the best possible agitated froth (aguante). The Asturian cider pour is essential and has its own verb to describe the procedure – escanciado.**


The current record from August, 2013, is 8,061 people, shared by sidra-loving Asturians in their annual group pour on La Playa de Poniente (one of the westernmost beaches of Gijón). In line with Asturian accounting, however, they stop recording newcomers soon after breaking the previous year’s record, so as not to elevate the numbers beyond reach for next year’s pour. It’s a group hug Asturian style. With practice, only about 10% ends up on the floor (or beach).


Of course, Gijón has more to offer than just fabulous apple-fermented juice. There is La Playa de San Lorenzo, one of the longest city beaches on the Spanish north coast with a 5-km walled promenade (el muro) that defines peace and tranquillity in the middle of its 250,000 strong city population. While not ablaze with excessive temperatures as in Spain’s Mediterranean Costa del Sol, San Lorenzo is home to the more refined sun-worshippers, walkers, and surfers alike.***



For the archeologically-minded, there is a Roman wall, Roman baths, thatched Asturian homes, and even a few 20,000 year-old cave drawings, only an hour’s drive up the coast to Llanes. One can also get to Bilbao or Santiago de Compostela easily by car along the Autovia del Cantábrico or as far as Bordeaux or Porto in a day.

Other must-sees include a walk through Cimavilla, the oldest part of town, and then up to Eduardo Chillida’s modernist Eulogy to the Horizon statue (El Cerro) with its sweeping views of the conchal Cantabrican coast. The Universidad Laboral, designed by Luis Moya Blanco, conjures up thoughts of another Spanish Escorial, and is the largest building in Spain by surface area.

To others, the outskirts or afueras is where Asturian charm best lies, in its coastal nooks and crannies, in its pastoral country sides, in its rural villages. But for most, the beauty of Asturias is in its people. You can walk the beaches, see historical sites, but all you have to do is share a sidra with a local and you’ll be hooked.

John K. White is an Irish-born Canadian writer now living in Gijón. He is the author of Do The Math!: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2012), The House of Words (Tuttle House, 2013), and Caracolas, a blog about his ongoing adventures in Asturias.

* The Protected Designation of Origin or PDO apple varieties include acid, acid-bitter, bitter, bitter-semi-acid, sweet-bitter, and semi-acid (acidas, acida-amargas, amargas, amarga-aciduladas, dulce-amargas, aciduladas), comprising 22 different apples: Acid (Durona de Tresali, Blanquina, Limón Montés, Teórica, San Roqueña, Raxao, Xuanina, Fuentes), Acid-bitter (Regona), Bitter (Clara), Bitter-Semiacid (Meana), Sweet-Bitter (Coloradona), Semiacid-Bitter (Panquerina), Sweet (Verdialona, Ernestina), Semiacid (Carrio, Solarina, De la Riega, Collaos, Perico, Prieta, Perezosa).
** Asturians drink over 50 litres per person per year (possibly the highest consumption in the world). Excellent information about sidra is available at Sidra de Asturias and Ciders of Spain. There is also an excellent interactive Museo de la Sidra in Nava, where you can watch an apple being pressed, a cider bottle being corked, and even play the traditional Asturian bagpipes. El Museo de la Sidra defines cider as “both a beverage and a rite.” When you go, check out Casa Colo in nearby Ceceda for a meal.
*** Asturias and the Green Coast escaped the worst of the over-development madness along the south coast of Spain. Check out “Why the crisis could be good for nature,” Juana Viúdez, El País, August 9. 2013.
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Espere … Ctrl-Alt-Supr only as a last resort

Living in a new country is daunting. Living in a new country with expat language skills can be terrifying. Insanity soon prevails, from opening a bank account (8 separate signed pages needed) to signing on at the local police station (a requirement of any extranjero whether criminal or not).* It may take a while, but “Don’t worry, be happy” is the best policy. In Spanish, no te preocupes. Chill.


When it comes to computers, however, “Don’t worry, be happy” and “no te preocupes” don’t cut it. To err is human, to completely foul things up … takes a computer. To err again is more human, to completely and utterly snafu everything takes a computer with another operating language.

Try translating Windows commands from Spanish to English. A Nightmare on Elm Street. Figuring out why your mobile phone suddenly won’t access the internet. Rosemary’s Baby. Finding the best Wi-Fi (Wee-Fee) hot spot in the house. The Exorcist, The Shining, Omen, Parts I, II, and III. When it comes to computers, practice does not make perfect.

The first Spanish computerese I mastered was descargar and cargar or download and load. I had to – necessity being the mother of invention and all – and have been descargaring everything under the sun. Even our television routinely descargars under the guise of the latest update. Contraseña (or clave) is also essential if one wants to sign on to anything with a password. But most vexing is the @ sign, a third-level function located on the 2/” key, accessed by pressing Alt Gr + 2. Not to mention accents. I thought French keyboards were hard. Spanish is another level.

Cookies are also a pain. Not the galleta kind, the pain-in-the-culo kind, as in a web page recognizing an IP address as Spanish, and then automatically assuming you speak business Spanish. As such, when I use the web, my IP recognizing cookie machine sets me up to open a BBVA account, watch TVE, learn English (curso official de inglés a distancia), or descubre nuestra bodegas. I don’t want to do any of that even in English. Yo no acepto.

The Huffington Post** also puts me directly into its Spanish front page because of cookies (not to mention the extremely large pop-up Spanish banner ads). Expat content is essential away from home and HP is free, although their page-3, right side is fast becoming tiresome (World’s Sexiest Actress, Porn stars want condoms, Actor of the Month opens up about sexuality, …). But, I can get a direct translation from the profile headers and see the appropriate internationalization (so-called I18n). While not a perfect match, it helps.

Word is a little more straightforward: Inicio — Home (or Start), Insertar — Insert or can easily be related to the English equivalent: Diseño de página — Page Layout, Vista — View. The submenus are also easy: Alinear — Align, Girar — Rotate, Recortar — Crop, etc.***

Computersi18n - 1

My favourite is Vaciar la Papelera de reciclaje (Empty the Recycle Bin) and Restaurar todos los elementos (Restore all items) – just in case I completely screwed up.

If all else fails, there’s always Ctrl-Alt-Supr (Ctrl-Alt-Del). Supr is short for suprimir, literally remove. And if all else fails fails, there’s always a good book.

Spanish learning aids and resources ASIDE: Coffee Break Spanish is an excellent resource for improving Spanish with lots of free audio exercises (210 and counting over four years). Where is Asturias is an excellent website and facebook page about life in the north of Spain. Check out Terri Mitchell’s country house Fancornio Rural for interesting courses and pastoral accommodation. Blue Sky Café has a Tandem Language Exchange, where English and Spanish are traded in comfy café confines. And if you’ve ever wondered if multilingualism is good for your health, check out Bilinguals Have Higher Level Of Mental Flexibility in The Huffington Post, Sept 12, 2013.
* I still have the government-issue tissue the local government admin lady gave me to wipe my finger after I had been inked. It seems bureaucracy is the norm in Spain. Some even blame the fall of the Spanish empire on a preoccupation for detail and losing site of the forest for the trees (and thus the colonies).
** The Huffington Post is slowly taking over the world with on-line editions in Canada, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Japan, Maghreb (North-west Africa), the U.K., and the U.S. Good for language learners, not so good for diverse, pluralistic thinking.
*** Some general rules for a particular class of words: plastic — plastico, reservation — reservación, participate — participar, competitor — competidor.
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El Menú del Día – IVA y pan included

El menú (men-OOH) del día is a great way to eat in Spain. Primero, segundo, postre, con una botella de vino (typically, red or tinto), all for the crisis-busting price of €9 and up. Where I’m from, you can’t get a bottle of wine for €9, let alone a meal. Some are better than others, but here are a few from the calles of Gijón.


It’s impossible to explain Spanish food in words. Delicious, amazing, spectacular don’t do it. Transcendent comes close. La comida (especially of the Sunday family kind) is heaven to los españoles. Sit back, eat, drink, and enjoy – it’s slow food taken to its slowest. No talk of politics, economics, or sports, food is the only subject.

Here is a list of some seafood (marisco) and fish (pescado) with English translations. The food comes fried (frito), grilled (a la plancha), baked (al horno), steamed (al vapor) and in a soup (sopa). ¡Que aproveche! (Literally, take advantage!)

Spanish English Spanish English
gambas shrimps bacalao cod
mejillones mussels atún tuna
calamares squids salmón salmon
pulpo octopus salpicón salmagundi

Note that a value-added consumption tax on all goods and services, IVA or Impuesto sobre el Valor Añadido, can be charged (although not in a listed menú del día). The maximum EU rate is 27% (only in Hungary). The standard rate in Spain is 21% (7% in the Canaries) with a reduced rate of 10% on food and drinks (3% or 0% in the Canaries). The Canaries are afforded special status “for the purpose of encouraging the economic and social development of the islands and the diversification of their manufacturing and service sectors.”*

The bread can also be excluded from the listed price, so you may be charged (one or two euros). El camerero sets it out, but doesn’t say if it’s included. If you eat, you’re charged, if not he takes it away gratis (I saw one camarero roll up the uneaten bread with the paper table cloth). And in the airport, they can slip you an aceite de olive and a tomate extra at 60 cents to sauce your bocadillo.

But rarely will you be ripped off, although it can happen.** I ordered a paella de marisco in the main tourist square in Madrid, La Plaza Mayor, and didn’t quite get what I asked for. Antonio was the very nice (amable) waiter, and the view of the square was unbeatable with various actors doing their usual bits for money, from the stone statues to the squealing babies to the gravity-defying fakirs sitting on ropes. (I have to say I don’t get the squealing baby bit if the idea is to attract paying people.)

Alas, the paella de marisco came with carne but no marisco. Antonio apologized, said he would see to it, and ten minutes later he brought out the same paella with a little less carne and some boiled gambas. He apologized again, and half an hour later another paella de marisco arrived. Fortunately I wasn’t too hungry when I first arrived. And, fortunately, he had left the bottle of wine on the table (although I had only asked for a glass) and it was a gorgeously sunny day to sit and rest one’s feet. Well, what do you expect from La Plaza Mayor?

I did learn a new word – engaño – and Antonio learned that one doesn’t have to pay what one is told to by overly nice, overly apologetic waiters on hastily scratched out cuentas. Que vamos hacer. Es la vida.

Here is a picture of real paella, the kind one melts over (thanks to los dos Charines y Avelino y Paz).***


Con pan y vino / Se anda el camino With bread and wine / You go your way
 * For more about IVA in Spain, see Spain: VAT essentials. For more about tax in the Canary Islands, see Spain: The Canary Islands Special Zone.
 ** In Dublin, I had a one-inch piece of monkfish for €30 in The Shelbourne, a miniscule so-called pasta meal in Terra Madre for €25, and an £18 breakfast in a former Ballsbridge hotel (former because the owner went belly-up when the value of his multi-million-euro land was halved in the 2008 crisis). Easy come, easy go.
*** In Asturias, the diminutive is ine, so Charine for Charo (i.e., Rossario). I am Xuanine, the diminutive of Xuan (John or Juan).
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Spanish Quizland. Comments welcome.

This week’s caracola is a quiz with a Spanish flair, one I put together for the Blue Sky Café on Friday night for the curious and the kind, including the winning team Turmi. Come along next Friday if you’re interested in some guaranteed fun. I list three of the more Spanish tinted rounds below. Reading Caracolas helps with the answers.*


1. What are the 4 autonomous communities that border El Mar Cantabricó?

2. Who is the president of Argentina?

3. What is the capital of Trinidad and Tobego?

4. The 3 ships of Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón) were the Niña, the Pinta, and which other ship?

5. Who is the Cuban American Republican senator of Florida?

6. Which 1957-born Cuban-American singer is self-styled with “an American head and a Cuban heart?”

7. By what name is the painter Doménikos Theotokópoulos better known?

8. In which year did the events depicted in Francisco Goya’s May 2 and May 3 paintings in the Prado occur?

9. In which year was Pablo Picasso’s Guernica first displayed at the World’s Fair in Paris?

10. Which Mexican painter did Salma Hayek play in the 2002 movie?



1. In which century was the first circumnavigation of the world?

2. In which century did Galileo Galilei die?

3. Who invented the telephone in the 1870s?

4. Which mobile phone company now sponsors La Puerta del Sol in Madrid?

5. Who won the most recent Champions League?

6. Who won the 2013 Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona?

7. What are the two official languages of Canada?

8. In which country do they speak tagalog?

9. In which country do they speak the occupation-related cant Xíriga?

10. According to Ahora Caigo, which Spanish writer has the most streets named after him?

Eamonn Ryan, the former Irish Minister for Communications and current Green Party chairman, stated on a late-night talk show that half of all blogs are read only by the blogger. I think that’s a bit harsh, and certainly not true if one includes machine readers. According to my stats, I am very popular – my current comment total is over 1,000. Unfortunately, 999 are from spam-bots, most of which are of the Japanese and Italian gibberish variety with their imbedded links. (Thanks Terri for the only real one so far).

After wondering why anyone would bother, even a spam-bot scammer, I learned that a link back increases a site’s search engine performance. It would seem worth it to send a billion spam messages if 20 get linked back to the spam site and a coveted first-page on Google. With most blogs, however, that’s hard to do, since comments are automatically filtered into a spam folder to which one just presses Empty Spam without having to wade through the muck.**

So far, my spam filter has been filled with postings for Viagra, Canada Goose replica jackets, NHL, NBA, and MLB shirts, and thousands of gibberish mail from spambot operators using open proxy IPs for supposed “known cyber criminal activity.”

Some must get through though, otherwise why would they bother. Or if one falls for the flattery of the less gibberish minded. I let two comments through in a moment of comment loneliness (they were in Spanish at least). I trust their traffic has sufficiently increased because of my vanity.

Some are quite funny, however, in an over-the-top obsequious way, guaranteed to tickle anyone’s inner Like button, including these that made my day:

Excellent article. I absolutely appreciate this site. Stick with it!” Thanks for the encouragement.

“Spot on with this write-up, I truly believe this site needs a lot more attention. I’ll probably be returning to read more, thanks for the advice!” Probably the best B.S. in the world.

 “You completed several nice points there. I did a search on the subject matter and found mainly people will go along with with your blog.” Nice to know I am mainly in the plain.

 “Of course, what a magnificent blog and informative posts, I will bookmark your blog. Best Regards!” But of course.

 I glad your article isn’t boring. You have put a lot of spice in your views and made this interesting reading. This is great info that’s loaded with persuasive wording for thinking readers. Thank you.” The associated link was for a blog at

But none were better than these two:

 “You need to take part in a contest for one of the greatest blogs on the net. I most certainly will recommend this site!” Why thank you. Where do I sign up?

 “I would name your site the dreamland! While Father Christmas knocks at our door just once per year, you blog is open the whole year – wow!” I am better than Father Christmas. I only hope I can keep it up.

I have to say, it seems like a lot of effort to butter me up. But, thank you to all the well-wishers, even if you are only a bot on my webscape. Alas, I am no longer the flattering kind. Empty Spam.

 * Answers available by contacting me (e.g., in a blog comment). Link backs available with a smile.
** That is, with the Akismet plugin.
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Help me por favor, más despacio

The language learner in a new place is full of doubts, insecurities, and fears – big breaths in through the mouth and out through the nose are essential. As is a big L sign hung around the neck to indicate that word carnage is on the way. Converse with caution y más despacio por favor.


“Do you want to go faster?” I remember the Holiday Bounce carney at the CNE* would yell to us 20 or so screaming kids, all holding on to our seats for dear life. Aqui, en la feria la pregunta is similar: ¿Te gusta ir rápido o despacio? Para los niños la respuesta es: ¡rápido! For me, it’s despacio por favor. For now, at least.

You see, I still talk like an 8 year old, and prefer my conversation slow, repeated, and light on Marx and Nietzsche (or Santayana and José Ortega y Gasset), although my ability does seem to improve with cerveza y vino tinto y sidra en Asturias.** On a recent trip to Madrid, Belén and I witnessed a conversation on the Metro*** between a mother and her young boy which was exactly my speed. The mother was telling him what they would be doing, and what each of the next stops would be, to which he would say, “¿Y después?” Over and over and over. Exactly what I needed. Simple, slow, repetitive. Aspergers Berlitz.

I was so into their simple rhythm that I wanted to follow them out and tag along, answering with the boy as his mother gave the next instruction: “Vamos al Prado.” ¿Y después?” Vamos al Thyssen.” “Y después?” “Vamos al Reina Sofía.” “¿Y después?” “Vamos al Rastro.” “¿Y después?” I could outlast him any day.

Of course, it’s tough for the language learner in any new place. I go back to the same stores again and again so I don’t have to explain how stupid I am again (they know from the first time). I order the same meals, the ones I understood before because it’s too big a gamble to try sesos de cordero. I pay with notes, unable to understand the quick rendering of el camarero o la camarera, and then pray that I understand how much change is right. My face is full of worry lines; my wallet is full of coins.

Signs help. While mingling in the streets with scores of tourists and locals alike, everybody’s checking everyone else out. Me, I’m looking at the signs for a clue, an aide, anything to get to level pegging. Anything to get me where I am going without too much pride lost. Of course, it’s okay to check out the goods, as long as I can learn along the way (las gafas o los abanicos).




As for las costumbres, well, that’s a whole other language learner’s can of worms. So far, organized queues are easier since I can’t speak well enough to assert myself when some dolt cuts in front of me. And I am sorry for honking at the jubilado who was just waiting his turn to park the other day. In any language, one wants to know what is ahead. I may not understand all the words, but I am starting to get the poetry of signs and signals of sympathetic looks and sonrisas.

Such is the life of a newbie extranjero (say that fast three times), which I know will get easier, although there is something edifying about jumping in at the deep end to drink a beer or a wine or a cider in a foreign land. To be sure, yo quiero beber rápido pero hablar despacio. Whether cerveza, vino tinto, o sidra. Tomorrow, I shall try harder, listen better, and think more. ¿Y después?

ASIDE Vivir/Beber: The pronunciation of these two verbs continues to stymie. Fortunately, it’s worth the humour my bad sense provides. I live in Gijón, I drink cider. Yo vivo in Gijón, yo bebo sidra. The writing is not hard, vivir is like vida (life) and beber seems to be like bebidas (drinks) or bebidos (drunk). The pronunciation is a matter of fine stress. Beebo and baybo. Indeed, eat, drink, and be merry whatever the pronunciation.
 * The CNE (Canadian National Exhibition) is an annual fair that runs for three weeks at the end of the summer in Toronto. The longest annual fair of its kind in North America, it has hundreds of rides and halls, and is a standard hangout for kids of all ages.
** Sidra is a way of life in Asturias. It’s like communion here, the spirit shared in the shared glass. I will need to learn much more about this costombre before reporting back. Check out Where is Asturias for lots of great info on sidra, arroz con leche and all things Asturian.
*** Shockingly, La Puerta del Sol, the main square and meeting place in Madrid has been renamed (rebranded the gurus will say) after a mobile phone company. All the Metro signs now call Sol vodafone sol. It seems there´s no more soul to Sol. For an account on the effect of rebranding in our world and the 24/7 selling machine, see the chilling Consumed by Benjamin Barber. The Winner-Take-All Society by Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook excellently shows how unchecked consumer competition is in fact a race to the bottom. I also cover the ad world with regards to the zero-sum game in Do The Math! On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking. No society should rebrand its core by commerce. Más despacio—the faster you consume the faster you reach the end.
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Game shows galore or how I learned to love anuncios

So far, my favourite Spanish TV show is ¡Ahora Caigo!, a quiz game with 10 contestants circled around a main player, who duke it out in head-to-head questions, until either the main player misses 3 questions (one life or green comodín per miss) or all ten players miss one question each. The odds don’t favour the main player, who does however get an extra comodín after 7 opponents. Prize money is randomly revealed after each round (€1, €500, €1,000, €2,000, or €5,000), and the main player can leave after 7 wins for half the money or receive another comodín and leave anytime thereafter for the accumulated money. Beating all opponents nets a cool €100,000, a seemingly rare occurrence.*

Oh yeah, when a player misses, he or she is unceremoniously dropped through the floor – hence the name, ¡Ahora Caigo! (Now, I fall!). Pronunciation is important here (khi-ee-go, not khi-go, which means something entirely different, more in keeping with the scatological game design).

Questions are asked by the host, a lively and fun Arturo Vals, who sings any questions that have song lyrics. He is very entertaining, though he can’t sing (well, every song sounds the same). He seems to be on a few other shows as well I’ve noticed with similar liveliness and fun, and various sizes of hair.

The question format of ¡Ahora Caigo! is like Hangman, which is why this is a good game for the language learner. Filling in the blanks is very good for the vocabulario. The ear is also well served as Arturo reads out each question as it is displayed. Questions go from the simple to the hard, with some international content (the easy questions seem to have more American content). Here are four, from the easy early ones to the harder later ones.**

George BushDemiMoore


Although the game can be quite fast-paced it is often at a beginner or intermediate level with routine intro questions asked by Arturo of each new player and a similar banter throughout, for example,

 ¿Cuál es tu nombre?

¿De dónde vienes?

¿Cuántos años tiene?

La respuesta correcta es …

Grammar ASIDE (double consonants) In Spanish, ll, rr, and cc are the main double consonants (with an occasional nn), which makes writing in Spanish easier than in English. No need to worry how to spell so much, just stick to single consonants. Hence, que aproveche (one p, literally meaning ‘take advantage’), atención, necesario (not necessary to remember how to spell necessary).

Other regular quiz shows are Atrapa un Millón (trap a million) and Pasapalabra (pass word), which along with ¡Ahora Caigo! are typically on every evening including weekends (18:30 h – 21 h). Atrapa un Millón is good for the new learner, although a bit slow compared to ¡Ahora Caigo!, while Pasapalabra is a bit fast. ¡Ahora Caigo! seems just right.

Unlike English and American game shows (especially Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?), there seems to be just as many women players as men, while the audience is mainly female, who in ¡Ahora Caigo! certainly love Arturo’s easy way. With his obvious charm, they don’t care that he can’t sing.

At my level, I don’t know whether it’s good to read and hear together, because the eye leads the ear. Perhaps when I get to a higher level, ¡Ahora Caigo! will deter my ear. For now, though, it’s perfect and when I get to the next level, I’ll try Pasapalabra. Maybe, when my ear is as fast as my eye.

Mind you, I haven’t yet figured out the anuncios – none for 45 minutes and then 20 minutes in a row (about 10 seconds each, which according to my math is over 100 commercials). Ugh and double ugh! Not sure the point, as one just turns the channel. To counter this, the commercials usually come at the climax and sometimes two sets in a row (after a return for 10 seconds!). Madness. It’s like the silent era where the villain with the bad bigote (bigoted?) ties Nell to the tracks as the train inches closer, but never quite gets there (all with a series of tight edits). Come to think of it, silence is golden as in the MUTE button, except of course for the language learner trying to understand.

To be sure, for the inveterate language learner, the learning never stops, whether crazy game shows or even crazier ads.

* Of course it’s never nice to see someone lose money on television, even if it does help my education. So far, schadenfreude doesn’t seem to be in the Spanish vocabulario.

“If I do not complain it is because a knight-errant must never complain of his wounds, though his bowels were dropping out through them.” – Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, pg. 43 Wordsworth Classics, 1993.

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