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Hey you! What are you listening to???

Back in May a guy named Tyler Cullen posted a short video on YouTube called “Hey you! What song are you listening to? NEW YORK.” Basically he just wanders around NYC with a camera, stopping people with headphones on and asking them what song is spinning on their device. Pretty ingenious really…and also fascinating. The idea has quickly spread around the internets, and now cities all over the world are being asked, “What song are you listening to?” The top video is from Buenos Aires. The bottom video is from Salamanca, Spain.

(And btw, I’m listening to my favorite little Latina from my wife’s and my newest guilty pleasure—Xenia covering “Breakeven.”)


Intense Summer Spanish : ¡Dios mío!

I’ve been taking an intense Spanish course this summer, and I would have never guessed how much such a thing could kick one’s butt!

In a mere six weeks, we’re covering all the compound tenses, all the uses of the subjunctive mood, the future tense, and a heavy dose of the imperative mood. ¡Ay! Basically, we’re ransacking almost half of a textbook in daily increments of three hours during the course of a summer…it’s awesome! In the fall, since my cohort will have finished covering all the basic elements of Spanish grammar, we’ll be able to move on with more interesting tasks: reading short stories, watching films, giving speeches, and writing essays. You know…real Spanish! I can’t wait.

The extra speed and intensity has already forced the students in the class (including this dilettante) to think more and more in Spanish—there’s no time to translate in your head, just say it! After a blitz of present perfect and present perfect subjunctive work last week and the beginning of this one, we took our first test yesterday. Luckily, we’ve got a bit of a breather ahead for the next week or so: the rather simple future tense and the conditional. But considering that we have two heavy doses of new vocabulary each week, I have been left to wonder how much that part of the class will stick in my brain. I guess I’ll find out in August?

Destinos : The Prehistory of Sol y viento

Well before author and teacher Bill VanPatten helped to develop the Sol y viento series, he was the major force behind a much larger Spanish-language-learning project known as Destinos.

Destinos was a language program that, like Sol y viento, combined traditional textbook work with a film—or rather a telenovela in this case—that was broken down into episodes corresponding with the work done in the text. The filmed segments of the course were produced by Boston’s PBS station WGBH, and the series was first broadcast on PBS in 1992. It initially ran for two years, but you can still catch it on some public television stations today (usually late at night) and many high schools and colleges used the course well into the last decade. As you can guess, the film segments of Destinos combine to form a much longer story than Sol y viento‘s. In fact, there are 52 segments in the series, and they each last about half an hour. Thankfully, you can watch all the episodes of Destinos at your leisure if you go to Annenberg Media’s website.

Destinos follows the quest of a Latina lawyer from California, Raquel Rodríguez. Rodríguez has been hired by a family in Mexico whose patriarch, don Fernando Castillo, has recently received a mysterious letter from Spain. It says that Rosario, don Fernando’s first wife, didn’t perish during the Spanish Civil War as he had always thought, and that she bore him a child after the war. This is all a bit much for the Spanish ex-patriot, who left Spain to make a life for himself in Mexico with a new wife and family after the war. So Rodríguez is sent to investigate the claims. That mission takes her to Spain, Argentina, and Puerto Rico in an attempt to put together the real story behind Rosario and the life she may or may not have led after the Civil War.

So why am I bringing all of this up? Well, I started to work episodes of Destinos into my weekly routine recently, and I have to say that it is really, really enjoyable. Now yes, it is dated. But if you can get over the hair, clothing, electronics, and film techniques of the late 80s/early 90s, there is a lot of good Spanish practice to be had by working your way through the episodes. And although the storyline can be a bit cheesy at times, it’s certainly captivating enough to keep you going.

The show hits the ground running. The characters speak to each other in real Spanish, and the Spanish spoken by each character exposes the viewer to very different versions of the language. In Spain Rodríguez interacts with characters who speak castellano, in Argentina she hears vos, and in Puerto Rico she gets a taste for Caribbean Spanish. The idea of the whole thing is that the viewer should understand pretty much everything the narrator says (he speaks in a clear, relatively slow Spanish with simple vocabulary) while trying to get the gist of what the characters are saying in conversation. After episode one, English is mostly dropped from the series.

I’m over a quarter of the way through it, and I’ve enjoyed watching the program so far. There’s even a closed caption option for each episode, which is a nice addition. So check it out.

Edimburgo Part III : Museum of Childhood

One of the best things about Edinburgh is that it has a slew of quirky museums, almost all of which are free to the public. One of my favorites is the Museum of Childhood. Not surprisingly, it has a huge collection of material goods associated with children—everything from prams and bottles to toys and games. One large room in the museum is devoted to dolls. And while most of the pieces in it are from the UK—as are the bulk of items from the museum as a whole—there is a little section tucked away in a corner with dolls and figures from outside Britain and Europe. Of interest to me, of course, were a couple of figures from Latin America. (Sorry for the reflection of this old boy’s hand in the photo!)

The one on the left is described as a “Mexican grotesque figure” from the 1960s. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to find out that it is from the Day of the Dead festival. I found it to be an interesting juxtaposition to all the lovely dolls in dresses and nice hats that otherwise fill the museum’s doll room!

The one on the right is a stone figure found at a child’s grave in Peru. No other information is given, which leaves my mind reeling.

On the road and the mix-up machine

I’m in the midst of traveling right now, and I’m finding it harder to get an internet connection than I originally planned. I hope to keep updating Spanish Dilettante, but posts might be slow to come through. (Grammar and typing errors might also be more frequent—ja!) Either way, I’ll be back full time by June 1 at the latest. Meanwhile, enjoy this Pocoyo episode that I think is pretty great!

Dogs and Politics: Bolívar, Nevado, and Chávez

Because of my experience with Angostura bitters I’ve been looking into other nooks and crannies of Simón Bolívar’s life. One of the more interesting parts of his legacy is the history of  his dog Nevado (Snowy). Like most things related to Bolívar, the story is connected to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Statue of Bolívar's two companions, Nevado and the Indian Tinjaca. Plaza Bolívar de Mucuchíes, Mérida, Venezuela.

Nevado was a Mucuchí. Mucuchíes are fluffy white Andean dogs that sometimes have a little splash of black, tan, or gray; and they’re pretty much localized to the Mérida region of Venezuela. The breed was started 400 years ago when Augustine missionaries first brought Pyrenean Mastiffs with them to the Andes. Apparently those friars were surprised to find a Andean dog of similar temperament and looks already there when they arrived, so they did the obvious—they breed the two together. (That’s the obvious thing to do, right?) The end result was the Mucuchíes, which are popularly known as a lovable breed of hard-working dogs. They are also the national dog of Venezuela and a kind of national symbol for the country.

Bolívar’s Mucuchí pup Nevado was given to him by the people of Mérida during the leader’s fight for the liberation of Venezuela from Spanish control. Legend has it that Nevado was a faithful companion to Bolívar and even ran alongside Bolívar’s horse when he went into battle. Ultimately the poor thing was killed during the Battle of Carabobo in 1821, which was a decisive win for Bolívar and a key victory leading to Venezuela’s independence. Many memorials exist today in Venezuela dedicated to Nevado and his roll in the liberation of the country, and the dog’s story is a rich part of Venezuelan history. But the Mucuchíes as a whole have seen better days. More and more the breed has been bred with larger dogs such as St. Bernards, making it harder and harder to find a purebred Mucuchí these days. Enter Hugo Chávez.

Recently Chávez gave government backing and funding to the Nevado Foundation (named after Bolívar’s dog of course), an organization that has been trying to bring the breed back from the brink of extinction. Chávez is crazy for all things Bolívar. He sees himself as the ideological son of the liberator. He changed the official title of the country to the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” in 1999. And he even likes to give a copy of Bolívar’s sword as gift to distinguished guests, as he recently did for Russian Tzar Godfather President Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. So backing a group named after Bolívar’s dog was probably a no brainer for the South American leader.

While the Nevado Foundation, which operates a breeding kennel for the dogs just outside of Caracas, only has about a dozen pups at the moment, now with the backing of Chávez’ government, they have high hopes. According to Nevado Foundation President Walter de Mendoza…

We want [Mucuchíes] to be known all around the country as a breed and as its historical legacy. We would like to have Mucuchíes even outside Venezuela. One of the plans we have is to have at least a couple of them in each embassy around the world as a symbol of our country.

source: PRI

And I’ll be the first in line to pet one!

Me llamo Diego. Soy argentino.

Some of the more interesting language tools I’ve come across recently are text-to-speech (TTS) systems that allow users to type in words, phrases, or any old block of text and have a computer voice spit it out at them. This type of system has come a long way since I saw WarGames for the first time. As you can see with Roger Ebert’s “new voice,” mimicry is getting awfully close to the real thing.

One site that I’ve been spending way too much time monkeying around on is SitePal. It’s a pay service that allows users to design their own TTS avatars for websites or business purposes. Lucky for us poor Spanish students, they have a free demo that is more than enough fun to waste several hours on.

The demo allows users to enter text from several different languages, including Spanish, and have that text read by a computer avatar. You can choose from various male and female voices, including some interesting regional variations: Latin American, Mexican, Castilian, Chilean, and Argentinian. Currently I’m fixated on the last one, an Argentinian voice named Diego. I find it stupidly entertaining to hear him pronounce “ll,” as in “Me llamo Diego.” But what is more exciting is the possibilities such technologies hold for students wishing to work on their own pronunciation.