5 Spanish "Tricks" from the Field Station
Tropical biology and Spanish like to show up at the same parties on this side of the world.
There is no replacement for actually learning Spanish vocabulary and tenses, and there is no replacement for cultural immersion.
But after having a foundation and an opportunity to learn, the line on my CV, "fluent in Spanish" still has a wide spectrum of fluency. Some days I can articulate with ease, and other days I have no idea what we're talking about around the dinner table. After living at the Horizontes research station for about a month I started noticing my "get by" strategies. Here are 5 “tricks” I recommend to other scientists that come to the research station:
Trick 1: Talk around it: use other words to describe the thing you mean.
Yes, this requires you to know some Spanish words, but work within what you know. When you need to remove the thorns on an Acacia tree that are filled with ants, but don't know the word for clippers, describe the clippers: nesecito una cosa lo que puede cortar partes del arboles. Costa Rica specific: the normal word for thing (cosa) can also be replaced with chunche- a very tico word. Also in Costa Rica, the verb "to need" is usually not nesecitar, but instead is ocupar. This took me some time to figure out as I thought the cook was asking me if I was busy with something when she was asking if I needed anything.
This trick is rarely executed without excessive hand motions and charades. Go at it.
Trick 2: Be able to tell a story: learn past tenses.
At least in field station situations, most of the conversation happens at mealtime, and most of what people connect over are stories. This means learning the past and imperfect tenses in order to give your stories some context. Using both of these tenses lets you set the stage: where you were, and what you were doing (imperfect) when you saw (preterite) that snake blend in with the forest floor so well that you could only see the part of its body crossing the trail.
Trick 3: Lazy past tense: haber + past participle
I hate passive voice. But learning how to conjugate one verb to describe an experience passively as something you have seen, have done, or have heard is far easier than learning all of the imperfect and preterite conjugations for seen, done, heard--all of which are irregular verbs. Learn how to conjugate haber: he, has, ha, hemos, han, and then attach the stable form (past participle) of the weird word you were trying to conjugate: visto, hecho, oido, etc.
Trick 4: Lazy future tense: Voy a + infinitive.
In normal human interactions, being able to indicate your next move so that your fellow humans know what to expect, some form of future tense is helpful. While actually learning future tense is not too complicated, this shortcut simply says "I am going to (fill in verb without any conjugation)…", which enables you to indicate to your new tico friends that you are going to watch the sunset on the beach in case they want to join.
Trick 5: Fake it till you make it: Practice talking with an accent.
When I first learned Spanish, I felt strange imitating a Spanish-speaking "accent". But in reality, the more I pronounced words as I heard them being spoken around me, the more native speakers seemed to understand. You can practice this by reading billboards or trashy magazines out loud to yourself to hear the way you pronounce each word, whether or not you know what they mean.
Yes, I should probably spend more of my evenings pouring over verb conjugation tables, which I do sometimes when I get stuck. This studious impulse is not common however. Much more frequent are the words I stumble upon in casual conversations over another plate of beans and rice, following verbal directions while driving the crazy streets of San Jose, and while watching soccer games with Ticos over chileguaros, the informal national cocktail. Most new words bring the conversation to a halt, or laughter over the miscommunication. All of the above build connections.
These human connections and relationships are the most important teachers for my Spanish fluency, not only because it is our mode of communication, but by having a connection in that language, I feel like I belong in the conversation. Building up this arrogance of belonging for my Spanish-speaking identity is one of the greatest gifts in doing field work among the rugged muddy roads, palm fronds, and lianas.
-Adrienne L. Godschalx, December 8th, 2015