ratcreature: RatCreature blathers. (talk)
RatCreature ([personal profile] ratcreature) wrote2016-08-30 05:47 pm
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and then I fell into a wikipedia click hole...

I've decided to make one of my occasional attempts to get better at Spanish again. When trying to work through some self-study book -- by now I've acquired a handful -- I generally stall after about seven or eight chapters. My motivation just collapses eventually, because the pay off for working through the tedious dialogs etc. never seems to come. And I haven't just tried regular text books, either. After all I have no immediate need to buy apples or reserve a hotel room in Spanish, but simplified mysteries and other texts with practice and grammar bits scattered into them don't work much better, because those aren't exactly the kind literature that particularly hooks me either, so it is not much less tedious. And I'm not at a level where I could try Harry Potter in Spanish or such, despite being familiar with the story.

Meanwhile the gamified learning approach as in the Duolingo app is fairly fun, but ultimately that never got me anywhere. My last attempt to improve my Spanish knowledge had me playing through all the Spanish levels available in the Duolingo app over a couple of weeks, and it did not improve my Spanish in any lasting, significant way.

This time around I've decided to try out "Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It", which despite its grandiose title claim is basically a fairly sensible guide to how to utilize flashcards and spaced repetition better for language learning, with step-by-step instructions for how to make your own flashcard sets and tricks to make them effective with pictures, sounds and mnemonics. So it's not quite the "get six-pack abs with our five minute super special patent exercise" kind of product hawking despite the title. My own previous attempts with flashcards have all been of the old school analog variety, i.e. just vocabulary flashcards with translations and some grammar, and those didn't help me much, except for memorizing vocabulary on the bus.

Anyway, the author recommends to pay close attention to correct pronunciation and to learning all the sounds properly as a foundational priority, which led me into said wikipedia click hole as I read Help:IPA for Spanish and the corresponding article in the German wikipedia (which contrasts Spanish to German rather than English sounds). And from there clicked on all sorts of IPA and phonology related stuff.

I'm not sure whether that wikipedia click hole was a step towards future progress or just procrastination. I didn't yet start to make any actual flashcards, but otoh I am now much more knowledgeable about my Spanish pronunciation woes: Mostly R and RR related, as neither the "voiced alveolar flap/tap" nor the "voiced alveolar trill" are my friends. When listening I can hear the difference between both fine, but I can't make either sound with any consistency. There is some consolation in that the trilled alveolar RR is just hard to make (it is apparently usually the last sound native Spanish speakers acquire in childhood), but I find the other even harder pin down properly. As I said, when doing listening exercises with some native speaker saying minimal pairs (e.g. cada/caja/cara/carra) I get what was said right most of the time, but to pronounce the difference, in particular the cada vs. cara one (i.e. "voiced denti-alveolar stop" vs "voiced alveolar tap" in IPA jargon) is really hard.

So then I clicked about to how you say "R" in German to see what my own "default R" even is and how it differs from the Spanish sound, and it seems that Rs are really complicated, and that German as language is also fairly confused about its Rs, that is, all sorts of dialects pronounce Rs in a variety of ways. Some German dialects in the South even do the Spanish sounds, but mine is definitely not one of those. Trying to puzzle out how I actually pronounce Rs in German was harder than I thought. I think looking at the Help:IPA for German page that at the end of words I say the R as a semivowel or reduced vowel, so I don't pronounce it as a any "proper" R at all, and other times I say a "voiced uvular fricative", i.e. a kind of "guttural R" where you have the tongue more in the back of your mouth.

This also explained one of the aspects I found confusing in the pronunciation guides in German Spanish language books, which mostly explain the two Spanish sounds as "rolled R" and "strongly rolled R", presumably to avoid the IPA jargon, but you can do a trill in that place in the back too ("uvular trill") which is the sound first think of with "rolled R". That sound I can make without problem, even though it is not how I usually say an R.

But unfortunately in Spanish you can't say Rs like that (it apparently comes across as either a speech defect, or when it actually is a native variant, it gets stigmatized as some kind of uneducated, backwards rural thing). So you have to do to it in the front of your mouth. (Why Spanish? French has that other "R" and that is a romance language too!)

I can kind of make that front position work with the RR (when I manage the trill vibration at all), though my tongue kind of wants to go to the comfortable uvular R position, but the tap/flap thing remains somewhat mysterious. I've seen an explanation for English speakers (whose R-issues are somewhat different) to approximate the alveolar tap/flap with a fast D sound until you somehow get to an R-like thing? But I find that confusing. I can hear how that gets you closer, but Spanish also has a D there, after all "cada" is different from "cara".

It's some consolation that in reverse I expect Spanish speakers to be unhappy with many German sounds too. Before looking at these IPA pages I never quite realized just now many vowel sounds German has, especially if you contrast it with Spanish, which, not counting the diphthongs, has just five straightforward vowels that correspond to the letters plus two semivowels, whereas German, not counting the diphthongs, has fifteen native vowels some of those in short and long, plus several of the French nasal vowels remain in the standard German pronunciation of a ton of French loan words, and there are three semi-vowels, two reduced vowels (German uses two slightly different kinds of schwa) and the diphthongs. That's even more vowels than English which has a fair number. So in the vowel column on the German IPA Help wikipedia page there are 38 entries. I suspect that has to suck when you are used to five clean vowels. (There are just entirely too many possible places where we can place our tongue and lips.)

Of course there are other pronunciation pitfalls in Spanish you don't notice right away because they are almost but not quite the same, like (not) aspirating certain consonants, also some consonants are subtly softer than in German. Somewhat more obvious, the b/v-muddle takes some getting used to. And of course Spanish also has that obnoxious /θ/-sound (well standard Castillian from Spain anyway, which is the variant I'm learning) and the same difficult w-sound ("voiced labio-velar approximant") that English has, but then I've had years to get used to both in English.

And Spanish of course has the *major* advantage that unlike with English you do not actually need the IPA characters when you learn words, because it has very sensible and consistent phonetic spelling, so you are never put in this awful place of confusion and despair English routinely inhabits, where you have no idea how to look up a word you heard or how to pronounce one you see.

At least it's easy to know what a word is supposed to sound like, even if you can't really say it. So that is something.
vorpalgirl: Wonder Woman from DC comics' "The New Frontier", relaxing with a book (Wonder Woman chillin)

On Spanish

[personal profile] vorpalgirl 2016-08-31 03:21 am (UTC)(link)
If it's any consolation, I grew up in Florida, where I was exposed to hearing Spanish a lot from before puberty, and I STILL always had trouble with pronouncing the as I think of it "purred" rr sound, even though I can sort of 'hear' the difference.

My mother has it HILARIOUSLY worse though because not only can she not pronounce the difference at all, due to her own language studies when she was young having been restricted to Latin and French (the latter of which she's still decent in), she will pronounce literally ANY language's r's like they are French r's. And that's assuming she doesn't try to pronounce the whole Spanish word as some weird Italian-French hybrid (she had Italian/Italian-American relatives though she never picked up the language because at the time they wanted their kids to "speak English like Americans" i.e. assimilate more).

You should hear her try to say "ferreteria" (the Spanish word for either hardware store or hardware department depending on context). Comedy gold in our family, for sure. I always struggled with it too, in fairness, because of the "trilled" r, but it was still hilarious to hear her try to simultaneously swallow and trill that first "rr"...

When she backpacked through Europe, everybody thought she was Canadian rather than American because of this tendency to French-ify everything else's sounds. She generally chose not to correct them; Canadians were apparently universally well-received in Europe whereas Americans at the time it was a mixed bag.
Edited (grammar oops) 2016-08-31 03:22 (UTC)