I’ve been neither very conscious of nor conscientious about this, but I tend to not use a word or phrase in Spanish unless I’ve heard or read a native speaker using it at least once. Thus, when an angloparlante friend called me “amiguita” months ago in an email, I accepted but did not repeat the label. And sure enough, yesterday I came across the word in Suzanne Jill Levine’s translation of Jorge Luis Borges’ essay “A History of the Tango” and discovered why I’ve never used it: Levine translates the word as “mistress.”
Partly out of hero worship and partly because I do believe imitation to be the sincerest form of flattery, I’ve picked up and used many words and phrases from email from ya-sabés-quien, a friend who’s my latest former Spanish teacher (they are legion!). I can’t remember all the expressions I’ve adopted, but he’s such a good writer even of brief email messages, it’s fun to grab and re-use them. “Malvado” (evil), “¿Qué tal todo?” (How’s everything going?), “este tiempo insoportable” (this unbearable weather) on a soppingly humid July night last year in class – these are the ones that leap to mind. Imitating a learned, lively speaker works well when you’re attempting to become fluent in another language, and as long as you know exactly what you’re saying and use it correctly, you impress native speakers. And it’s fun.
But of course it can be overdone. Last year I picked up the phrase “un grupo nutrido” (a large group) from an article by Sergio Kiernan in the Buenos Aires daily Página 12 about architecture professor Max Page and our UMass class studying in the city, and none of my hispanohablante teachers and acquaintances here in Massachusetts seems to care much for the adjective. According to the forum posters on WordReference.com, the word is in a “higher register” and is commonly used by journalists. Heaven forbid I sound like a high-falutin’ reporter. But I like the sound of the phrase, so I use it at home with my cat, who, being a house pet, presumably appreciates the sound about as much as I do. “¿Querés una cena nutrida?” I ask, and as long as I wield that can opener, she doesn’t care what language I use.
In fact, I started substantially improving my second-language abilities more than a year ago when I started practicing on the cat. At times I speak only Spanish in my apartment – which is not to say that I think only in Spanish. But I’ve spent enough years taking language courses in the last few decades that I know my pronunciation is pretty decent and I conjugate verbs correctly a reasonable percentage of the time. What I’ve lacked is practice speaking aloud, hearing myself make mistakes and correcting them as I form sentences. I’m talking to myself – but the small furry beast with whom I share my home likes it when I speak to her.
One day last fall, one of my classmates at our small community language school mentioned apologetically that she spoke Spanish only there, only once a week, and I responded, “Talk to your dogs!” She looked slightly amused and baffled, and I continued: “I’m not kidding! It really helps with pronunciation; I talk to my cat all the time.” She was kind enough to not label me a crazy cat lady in either language. A couple of native speakers got it immediately; the following quarter when we introduced ourselves to our new class, the entire room cracked up when I mentioned my cat whispering, but our new teacher looked at me very seriously and asked, “Is the cat bilingual?”
Obviously it’s much better to practice with humans, who can respond in kind, correct my errors, and carry on conversations. But when one lives alone and needs plenty of personal time, talking to the pets works fine. Sometimes I need the freedom to simply speak in my adopted language and listen to myself – if I want to trill that R two dozen times or screw up the subjunctive till I get it right, I can do it without driving anyone up the wall. When I worry that my pronunciation is slipping, I simply listen to another news report and attend another weekly Spanish conversation group.
And to answer a question I’ve been asked many times: meow is miau in Spanish.