Learning to speak Spanish or any foreign language is a classic New Year’s resolution, but what drove me to take on the task was an obsession with iPhone games.
Before we get to that, let me point out that this is not the first time I’ve tried to learn Spanish. My first attempt came in Mrs. Ladd’s class. Spanish was mandatory at Ft. Calhoun High School. It also was the only foreign language taught outside of English, a language which Mrs. Ladd also taught and which also was foreign to most of my classmates.
For one solid semester Mrs. Ladd started each class by addressing us one after the other with “Hola! ¿Como se llamo usted?” In return, we were to reply with “Mi llamo your name.”
That was the only Spanish I learned in high school, along with the ability to count to 15 and the names of primary colors, yet somehow I managed to pass the course with at least a B.
Those numbers and colors would come in handy when I got to UNO and discovered my journalism coursework required fluency in a foreign language. Despite my semester of high school Spanish, I figured I’d start at the Beginner’s Level, designated for those poor saps who’d never taken Spanish before. In the back of my mind I actually thought I was gaming the system, what with my semester of Spanish in high school. This would be an easy A.
I knew I was in trouble before class even began. On the first day of most classes, students sit in stone silence waiting for the exhausted-looking instructor to slouch into the room, but this time there was a buzz of excitement as students grinned and chatted eagerly amongst themselves. “That’s interesting,” I thought. “It’s as if they already know each other.”
In walked the professor, a middle-aged Hispanic woman with a beaming smile. “Buenos dias!” she boomed. In response the class boomed back, “Buenos dias!”
As if scripted, she pivoted to me like a robot and with saucer-wide eyes said, “¿Como se llamo usted?”
I was ready. I busted out with my best “May-yam-uh Tim-oh-tay!” Her face immediately fell as if I just passed gas, loudly.
“No no no no!… Mee-ya-moh, mee-ya-moh. Not May-ya-muh. Try it it again.”
With rolled eyes she looked past me and turned to the next student, who exclaimed “Mi nombre es Roberto!”
“Bueno!” she exclaimed clapping her tiny hands. She proceeded to repeat the question for all 25 students, each pronouncing one phrase or another in response perfecto! When she finished, she asked in English, “OK, how many of you have never taken Spanish before, not even in high school.” All hands went up. “Good! We’ll start from the beginning.”
And from there, it went directly down hill. I quickly discovered everyone in the class not only had taken four years of Spanish in high school but were fluent enough to be United Nations translators. That chitter-chat prior to class was them practicing their Spanish amongst themselves, honing their skills, feeling out the competition.
After three weeks of humiliation I dropped the class without once being able to point out “Un mañzana es rojo.” A bigger problem than being behind everyone in class was that I could never breach that wall that separates meticulous translation and thinking in Spanish. Responding to a question in Spanish was like performing a complex math equation. “Hmm… let’s see… rojo means red and I think mañzana is a feminine form…” I could never let go of my beloved English.
I don’t know how I got around the Spanish requirement, but somehow I got my journalism degree from UNO as a one-language student fluent only in Associated Press style.
Which brings me to my latest attempt. I discovered Duolingo from a small article in Wired magazine. The author said the smartphone app made learning a foreign language as fun as playing Angry Birds or Candy Crush, two games that have stolen countless productive days of my life.
According to the Duolingo website, 34 hours of playing the game was equal to one university semester (11 weeks) of Spanish course work. Instead of mindlessly matching pieces of candy or trying to smash digital pig buildings, I could be playing my way to a conversation with the lady taking my order in the taco truck in the No Frills parking lot. And best of all, Duolingo is absolutely free.
The app uses pictures and audio along with written phrases and the iPhone’s microphone (so you can practice pronunciation) to guide you through language basics. The first lesson: Select the photo that represents “El hombre.” Is it the picture of the guy? Correct! A little owl dressed in a track suit prompts players to keep going as you collect digital hearts by completing lessons with as few mistakes as possible.
Within a few hours I knew “Nosotros leemos un libro” means “We read a book” and “Ellos beben una cerveza” means “They drink a beer.” That’s more than I’ve learned in my (narrow) lifetime of coursework.
Now after three weeks of playing Duolingo I’m up to Level 7 — a feat that would have taken a child less than an hour. I can now translate “Mayo y junio son meses del ano” into “May and June are months of the year.” Important information as I embark on a career in the calendar factory.
I can even understand phrases spoken by Duolingo’s computer mujer – but only if I Slow. Her. Down., which means I’m in good shape if I ever run into a Spanish-speaking person who’s suffered severe head trauma.
Will Duolingo finally do what teaching professionals couldn’t and make me fluent in Spanish, or is it just another game that I’ll eventually grow bored with before returning to stringing together pieces of digital candy? As they say in down Mexico way: El jurado aún está deliberando.
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at email@example.com.