No hablo español: How I failed to learn Spanish. Twice.

You’ve probably heard the joke:

A person who speaks two languages is bilingual.
A person who speaks more than two languages is a polyglot.
So what do you call a person who speaks just one language?

Answer: An American.

The joke is funny because it contains an element of embarrassing truth. And one big reason it’s true is that learning a second language can be very challenging. It was for me. I failed at it. Twice.

Freshman year

I did not want to learn Spanish. Or any other language. But my freshman guidance counselor encouraged me to take a foreign language course. In the state of Kansas, students who completed two years of foreign language study were eligible for a scholarship of $1,000 to a state university.



For university.

I was a freshman. I didn’t care about university scholarships. Plus, $1,000 wasn’t very much money. Especially when you consider the number of boring hours I’d spend in class and doing homework. I actually did the math, and I estimated my hourly earnings to be less than one dollar per hour. I was not sold.

Three days into my freshman year, I dropped the Spanish class and switched to an independent study in computer programming. I’m sure I made the right decision.

Ice cream

Fallen ice cream: The reason I wanted to learn Spanish.
Fallen ice cream: The reason I wanted to learn Spanish.
Two summers later, my church youth group took a one-week trip to Brownsville, Texas along the U.S./Mexican border, and we crossed over into Matamoros, Mexico a few times. This was my first “real” exposure to the Spanish language. And it was there that I decided I wanted to learn Spanish. I remember the specific moment.

I had ordered an ice cream cone and was fumbling with my wallet to pay for it when the ice cream fell off the cone and landed on my foot. The girl who had just sold it to me giggled. I felt foolish, but I also knew I wanted to be able to talk to her–if only to say something to try to save face.

I finally had motivation to learn Spanish.

My first attempt to learn Spanish

When the summer ended, I eagerly enrolled in an introductory Spanish course at the local community college for dual credit. I eagerly did my homework and passed the semester with a high B grade. Eager to continue my education, I enrolled the following spring in Spanish 102. This time my grade was a low C, and I felt it was unacceptable.

I decided to take my second semester of Spanish again, this time at a larger university, with the hope that I could master the material. Again, another C.

Now, of course, I could have continued on to the next level of Spanish, and the school would have been okay with this. But remember, I was taking Spanish classes because I wanted to learn Spanish. I wanted to communicate, not just get a passing grade. And I was failing on that count.

I was discouraged, and I gave up.

My second attempt to learn Spanish

Denny's was my language school.
Denny’s was my language school.
Several years later I was waiting tables when I noticed one of my regular customers was conducting individual Spanish classes right there in the restaurant. Could this be my chance to try again? I inquired, and she agreed to teach me the language as well.

For several months, I met with her, usually two hours every weekend, and I made great strides in my Spanish acquisition. We went over vocabulary and grammar, and I translated children’s books to and from Spanish. To this day she says I was one of her most determined students.

But then I got a job in another city and was no longer able to attend classes with her. Quickly I forgot practically everything I had learned.

Language immersion in Mexico

In 2010, my work changed again and gave me the flexibility to work remotely, so I took the opportunity to move to Mexico, where I would be able to focus even more on learning Spanish. I enrolled in a local Spanish school and settled in for the 9-month course.

I had to start at square one. Practically everything I had learned before was forgotten. Although the first month or so of the course was relatively easy for me, as old knowledge started to come back to me, it was discouraging how little I had retained from before.

When the course ended, I passed with good marks. But I was not fluent.

Teaching myself

I spent another year in Mexico after the language course ended, and it was during this time that I would say I truly learned Spanish. Going out with friends, conversing one-on-one, and chatting with online penpals are the things that most helped me learn Spanish.

So when I decided I wanted to learn Portuguese to visit a friend in Brazil, I started teaching myself, using the same techniques I had used to learn Spanish. When I then went to Brazil in 2014, after studying Portuguese on my own for about a year, I found that my spoken Portuguese was absolutely abysmal. I had only been teaching myself to read and write Portuguese. The month I had there helped immensely to remedy that situation, but mainly it taught me many of the flaws in my self-teaching techniques.

Later in 2014 I spent three months in Portugal, as well. This gave me more opportunity to hone in my Portuguese skills, and more importantly, my language-learning techniques.

Now I’m teaching myself French.

What I’ve learned

During this entire process, I have succeeded in learning to speak Spanish. It was definitely a challenge, but I succeeded. But what is more exciting to me is that I have learned how to learn a language. And while there will always be new techniques to language learning, I believe I have picked up enough of this essential knowledge that I can begin to share it with you.

That is why I have created this blog. And I hope you’ll follow along.

Why there is no Portuguese word for “Sauerkraut”

Pardon my French

The phrase
The phrase “Pardon my French” is popular enough that it is common on T-shirts. Buy your own!
Last week my brother was telling me a story that took place at his work.  Somebody had, jokingly, insulted a coworker using a long string of profanity.

“What did you say?” the recipient had retorted, pretending to be offended.

“Oh nothing. That’s just the Portuguese word for ‘sauerkraut’.”

We’ve all made jokes like this.  The phrase “Pardon my French” has even entered the English vernacular, as a way to ostensibly disguise profanity.

There is no translation

“There probably isn’t even a word for sauerkraut in Portuguese,” was my response when my brother told me the story. It turns out I was wrong (sort of–more on that in a moment). The Portuguese word for sauerkraut is “chucrute“. But would you believe me that there isn’t an English word for sauerkraut?

“Wait a minute!” you may be thinking. “You just said (wrote) the English word for sauerkraut. it’s sauerkraut!”

And you’d be right. Sort of.

“Sauerkraut” is actually what we call a loanword. Loanwords are incredibly common in many languages. In English they are especially common for names of foreign food items–such as “taco,” “spaghetti,” “sushi,” and, of course, “sauerkraut.”

If you’re thinking “Okay, so sauerkraut is a loanword from German. So what? Now it’s an English word, too!” you’d also be right. Sort of.

Jar of Chucrute / Sauerkraut sold by Hemmer in Brazil.
Jar of Chucrute / Sauerkraut sold by Hemmer in Brazil.
Remember how a moment ago I said I was “sort of wrong” about Portuguese having a word for sauerkraut? Well, Portuguese has the word “chucrute” which means the same thing as sauerkraut in German (and English). But it’s not really a Portuguese word, either. It’s also a loanword. This time from French. “choucroute” is the French word for “A dish made by fermenting finely chopped cabbage”.

But wait! It’s not really a French word, either! The French borrowed the word from the Alsatian dialect of German, which in turn got the word from German ‘sauerkraut’.

A cabbage by any other name

You might think that of the languages thus far discussed, English, Portuguese, French, Alsatain and German, only English directly borrowed the word from another language. The others each made slight changes to the word along the way. In reality, English made some changes, too, which is clear if you compare the English pronunciation with the German pronunciation. And in fact, almost every loan word changes at least a little when it moves from one language to another. Ask a native Mexican to say “taco” and it will sound slightly different than when a native English speaker does it.

  • American English “sauerkraut”
  • German “Sauerkraut”

“Loanword” is not a black-and-white concept. There is an entire spectrum of loanword classifications. The “strictest” form of a loan word is a classified as a “foreign word”–where we use a foreign word directly, without integrating it into the language–like “sauerkraut”.

When Alsatian turned “Sauerkraut” into “Sürkrüt” “French turned “Sürkrüt” into “choucroute”, and Portuguese turned “choucroute” into “chucrute,” these were all examples of a slightly more liberal “loan word” processes.

Language Boundaries

So what’s the point of all of this?

A typical view of languages, at least from a mono-lingual American viewpoint, is somewhat analogous to a map.

A typical view of languages, with distinct borders between them.

We tend to compartmentalize languages. “Dog” is English. “Gato” is Spanish. “Je t’aime” is French. “空” is Japanese.

I prefer to take a different view. And I encourage you to change your thinking and join me.

The Fluidity of Language

As we have seen above, with a brief study of everyone’s favorite fermented cabbage dish (no offense, kimchi lovers!), languages are intertwined. Almost all of English vocabulary comes from other languages–roughly 45% from French. That is to say, there are very few truly “English” words–words of actual English origin. What we call the “English language” is constantly changing. It’s always being influenced by other languages–and in turn it is influencing other languages.

I think rather than compartmentalizing language, as we do national boundaries on a map, it’s much more accurate and useful, to think of languages as flowing together.

Language flows like paint swirls. Where one language ends and another begins is often impossible to determine.
Language flows like paint swirls. Where one language ends and another begins is often impossible to determine.

Thinking of languages with defined boundaries is harmful to learning about new languages. It creates a “here” and “there” mentality. “I’m here. I speak English. Spanish is over there. It’s far away. It’s difficult.”

Once you make that mental shift to seeing all languages as related, it makes your world both larger and smaller simultaneously. It makes the world larger in the sense that you realize you can never learn all of our “own” language. English is a huge language. And it changes every day (and that’s not just rhetoric! It is constantly changing in real, observable ways!).

It also makes the world smaller by realizing that other languages are not so distant. Spanish isn’t “another language”. It’s more like “another shade” of language. You already know a lot of Spanish without realizing it (burrito, café, insubordinación). You also know a lot of French (café, fiancée, proposition), German (sauerkraut, gesundheit, fest), Italian (a cappella, finale, riviera), and Japanese (豆腐 (tofu), 醤油 (soy), 禅 (zen)). Don’t be afraid to learn more.

Passionate about Language

It is this mindset that lead me to subtitle this blog “Passionate about Language” rather than “Passionate about Languages.” While it’s convenient to talk about languages as distinct entities, as a student of language, I believe it’s much more appropriate to think about language as a single art form.

Glossophile? Glossa-what?

Editor’s note: This article is also available in Spanish.
Nota del editor: Este artícolo también está disponible en español.
¿Glosófilo? ¿Gloso-qué?

As I was thinking about launching this blog, I knew I would need to come up with name.  I wanted something short. Something memorable.  Something meaningful.  I spent several days brainstorming with my wife and some friends, and we had come up with a few ideas.  But nothing felt  quite right.

SapiosexualThen a few days ago, while I was working, the word “sapiosexual” came to mind.  It’s a relatively new word, a neologism, apparently “invented” in 1998. And for most language purists, it’s poorly formulated, and not especially meaningful. But the touted definition is:

sapiosexual noun
a person who is sexually attracted to intelligence in others

So this word got me thinking down the path of forming a word from ancient roots to convey the message I wanted.

Looking for a Latin name

If “sapiosexual” is a person who is attracted to intelligence, what word describes someone attracted to languages?  Using the Latin root for language, I’d have “linguasexual”, or the Latin root for speaking, I’d have “loquosexual”.  The first is clearly out because “lingua” also means tongue, and that would be the first meaning to come to mind when reading the word.  The second would also be confused, at least among American English speakers, with attraction for crazy people (thanks to the word “loco”, which we borrowed from Spanish).

And all of this ignores the fact that I’m not really interested in writing a sexual blog at all! (Never mind that most people, probably erroneously, don’t think “sapiosexual” is an overtly sexual term.)

Looking for a Greek name

So my next stop was Greek roots.  The Greek root φίλος (phílos), meaning “friend” or “beloved”, was my starting point.  We have many derivative terms in English. An audiophile is enthusiastic about high-fidelity sound reproduction. A Francophile has a strong affection for all things French. And of course I’m sure you can think of a few other -philias, many of which are not appropriate for work.

So one of -phile or -philia was to be my suffix. I still needed a prefix.  Greek for “language” (as well as “tongue”) is γλώσσα (glóssa). Its from this root where we get terms like “glossary”.

Narrowing it down: Glosso-

I began searching for words formed from these roots.  Glossophilia is an established word.

Glossophobia is the fear of speaking–specifically in public.

Xenoglossophobia is the fear of foreign languages (not a problem I face!).

With these precedents, I knew I was on to something.

Arriving at Glossophile

I simply had to replace the -phobia in glossophobia with my chosen suffixes, -philia and phile.  Of these two, Glossophilia is the more common as a word but it also sounds (to me, at least) more sexual than I prefer. And the domain name is already taken anyway.  So I settled on Glossophile.

I felt like “The Glossophile” had a better ring than simply “Glossophile.” Thus the name of the blog.

So borrowing from the definition of audiophile, I have accepted the following definition for glossophile, and thus the name of my blog:

glossophile noun
a person who is enthusiastic about language

I am a glossophile. I am enthusiastic about language. And this blog is about my enthusiasm about language. And not just foreign language, or I might have called it “The Xenoglossophile.” I’m enthusiastic about my native language, English, as well as the other languages I speak to varying degrees: Spanish, Portuguese, and French. I’m also enthusiastic about languages I don’t speak.

Mark Twain is one of America's favorite glossophiles.
One of America’s favorite glossophiles.

I hope you’re a glossophile, too. If you’re not enthusiastic about language, I hope you’ll stick around, and maybe some of my glossophilia can rub off on you. And don’t worry if you don’t speak more than one language. You can be enthusiastic about your own language, or about language in general. Many of the most famous glossophiles in history were mono-lingual!