Tag Archives: Reviews

SpanishDict iPod/iPhone App

I’ve always had hand-me-down computers, so with the school year starting I took advantage of Mac’s educational discount to buy myself my first brand new laptop. The sweet part of the deal is that I got a free iPod touch with the purchase (offer ends September 7), so I’ve been having a grand time going through all the various apps that are available for the little gadget. And in a quest to find good ones for Spanish learners like me, I landed at SpanishDict’s offering.

Now I’ve already been using SpanishDict’s website for quite a while. Though the dictionary part of the website can be a bit buggy at times, it generally gives good and quick definitions that often include examples of the word in context. (A good example is the page for hablar.) But the site goes beyond being just a dictionary, it also has active message boards and a pretty well structured self-study course that allows learners to interact with fellow travelers, as well as native speakers. So checking out their app was a no-brainer for me.

There are basically four components to it: a dictionary (see picture above), a word game (see picture below), a phrase book, and a daily word calendar. The dictionary is, not surprisingly, more basic than their web version, but it’s still handy. The word game is interesting because it assesses your skill level as you play and adjusts its questioning based on its findings. (I’ve enjoyed playing it during short breaks.) The phrase book is concise and generally covers travel situations: getting directions, emergencies, finding transportation and accommodations, food, clothing, colors, etc. Each phrase also includes audio, so beginners can work on their listening skills, too.

The great thing about the app is that it’s free. So there’s no need to throw down a couple of bucks just to take it for a drive. Just pull it up, and if it’s not for you, get rid of it. But even better than that, it doesn’t require an internet connection to work. So once you have the app running on your iPhone or iPod, you basically have a dictionary and phrase book with you wherever you go—WiFi coverage or not. And you can’t beat that!

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News in Slow Spanish

I’ve been taking some time recently to investigate a few Spanish resources I’ve had written down on the backs of napkins, bubblegum wrappers, and random scraps of paper. This morning I finally looked into the podcast News in Slow Spanish, and I transferred a couple of episodes onto my mp3 player and took a walk with them in the park. Boy, I’ve been missing out on something good.

The title of the program pretty much tells you what it is: world news read in relatively slow, well-enunciated Spanish. Each program lasts about 45 minutes and usually includes a couple of main stories, some chitchat between the hosts, a review of an essential point of grammar, and a discussion of at least one idiom in the language. The podcast is free, whether you listen to it directly on their website or download it from iTunes or a similar service. There are also a few pay elements on the site if you’re interested in some extras like quizzes, transcripts, bonus lessons, and access to their entire archives.

The program assumes a decent grasp of basic Spanish grammar, as well as a pretty good vocabulary. So it’s generally aimed at the intermediate learner. But there are some parts of each episode that would even be understandable to higher-level beginning students of the language—especially because the words are so clearly said and at such a moderate pace. The one drawback for some folks—especially those learning standard Latin American Spanish—is that the dialect spoken in the podcast is castellano, so expect to hear the vosotros form, a few unusual vocabulary words, and the Spanish “th.” But that’s no big deal, right? All of us Spanish learners should at least be familiar with the way the language is spoken in its mother country, no?

The Maid (La nana) : a film by Sebastián Silva

Silva based his film La nana on his own experiences growing up in Chile with a live-in maid. He even meticulously recreated his own bedroom drawings on the walls of the set. That background gives the movie a documentary feel that made me squirm at times—it’s a little too real, but you also can’t turn your eyes away.

There must be an awkwardness that inevitably comes with having another human being share your house and your secrets, but not necessarily your family’s kinship. Because of the employer-employee relationship between a maid and a family, there will always be some boundaries. So after the family in La nana gives a cake and a litter of presents to Raquel—the family maid from the title of the film—for her 41st birthday, she’s still expected to wash the dishes afterward. Of course, she herself expects the same having already served the family in such a way for 23 years.

The film is basically a character study of Raquel…and she is quite a character. She’s grumpy, duty-bound, feisty, and mysterious. She has a different relationship with each of the family members. The head-strong daughter thinks Raquel hates her (and she’s probably right!), father is aloof, mother is her apologist, and the sexually awakening son seems to have stronger feelings of affection for Raquel than for his own mother.

Early on in the movie we discover that the years of toiling for this moneyed Chilean family has started to take its toll on the maid. Raquel is popping painkillers because of her extreme headaches, and she’s walking through the days like a zombie at times. Mother decides to bring on extra help for Raquel, but that just makes things worse. She’s not much for sharing duties, and it seems that having another maid in the house violates all of Raquel’s conceptions of personal space and individual responsibility. And so, at least for this audience member, one has the feeling that this is all building towards some horrible end as a cold war between maid and family daughter escalates, and an active war between maid and the helper of the week gets downright nasty. But Silva doesn’t let things get totally out of control before shifting gears, and the film takes a couple of twists no one would have guessed. Mostly they come because of the introduction of a character very different from Raquel—a free-spirited helper from the countryside named Lucy. Lucy has more than one surprise in store for Raquel, who is used to being the one with surprises…especially for new labor in the household.

I was worried when I first saw the trailer for La nana. I thought it might be torturous to watch. But Catalina Saavedra is mesmerizing as Raquel, and she is surrounded by a strong cast, including the director’s real-life brother Augustín, who plays the family’s teenage son. And as I suggested before, the film takes some turns—very good ones I should add—that I never would have guessed from the preview. As well, the movie ends in a place I never would have guessed from sitting through the first half of the film. I definitely recommend this one.

Easy Spanish Reader/¡Así leemos!

A nice break in homework this week allowed me to finally finish ¡Así leemos!, which I first wrote about back in November (!). By the way, McGraw-Hill has updated the book since my copy was purchased, and it is now called Easy Spanish Reader—not really a title that inspires much passion from this dilettante, but as I said recently, publishers don’t always make the most interesting choices in life.

Whatever name you want to call it by, the book is a three-part graded Spanish reader that is pretty good for exercising your reading skills. Though I should probably say again that the first section of the book, “Enrique y María,” is rather dreadful unless you’re a preteen, a very low-level beginner, or someone with a preternatural interest in teenagers and high-school Spanish clubs. The second section, which is a short history of Mexico, and the third section, an abridged version of Lazarillo de Tormes, are much more worth your time.

One of the nice things about the book for a self-learner or someone using the text as a compliment to coursework is that it is broken up into very digestible chunks of text—usually only one page with a large font—and each chunk has a series of questions that do a decent job of testing comprehension. While the ¡Así leemos! version of the book that I have doesn’t contain any kind of answer key, McGraw-Hill promises that Easy Spanish Reader does. I also see that the edition sold on Amazon contains some kind of CD-ROM. Either way, it’s a nice addition to your language library if you fall somewhere between beginning Spanish speaker and lower intermediate learner. It gets you reading and introduces some good vocabulary into your lexicon. But if you have a decent grasp of core Spanish grammar, the book will probably bore you a bit.

30 Days of Immigration

With the insanity surrounding SB 1070 in Arizona (and now the talk is that the state will try to deny citizenship to children born to illegal immigrants), I was inspired to go back and watch the episode “Immigration” from Morgan Spurlock’s TV show 30 Days. If you’re not familiar with the program, it’s a reality show that has someone living 30 days out of their element or in someone else’s shoes: straight man living with a gay man, an able-bodied athlete living 30 days in a wheelchair, a heavy energy consumer living 30 days off the grid, and so on.

(Not the greatest interview, but it gives you a sense for the show in general.)

In this particular episode, Frank George, a member of the Minutemen border patrol group, lives for 30 days with a Mexican family living illegally in East LA. The twist in this particular situation is that George is a fluent Spanish speaker and was once known as Francisco Jorge. He was born in Cuba and immigrated legally to the United States with his family during the rise of Communism on the island. He actually came to the US at the same age Armida is during the filming of the episode. Armida is one of the family’s five children, and it’s Armida who turns out to be a handful for the dedicated activist. She’s smart, hardworking, and stubborn in debate. Her relationship with George makes for great television.

Frank George is in the center. Armida is on his left.

One of the things I like most about the episode is that all of the participants are very human and approach each other on good faith. George, for instance, is not a people hater. He’s respectful and gracious with the family from the moment he enters their home. He makes himself incredibly vulnerable and goes as far as to even travel to family’s native village in Mexico in order to see where the family came from…and experience some of the reasons why they were so desperate to leave. And the family is very open with George as well. They give him a comfortable bed in their cramped house and share their dinner table with him, even though if he had it his way INS would be at their door in minutes. George gets a human face for a debate that usually involves faceless images of invading hordes, and the family gets some diatribes on law and order from a man who loves his country (and who is rather delusional on more than one point, in the opinion of this dilettante). Again, it makes for great television.

But it just got me started thinking about Arizona again. Recently I read an interesting article in Newsweek by Arian Campo-Flores called “Don’t Fence Them In.” Campo-Flores writes that folks are getting riled up about Mexicans flooding into the US during a time when birthrates in Mexico are actually dropping rapidly and historically. And the piece ends with at a jab at the shortsightedness of Arizona’s government. While the state is trying to push immigrants out, boomers are just about to retire and fill retirement homes there. Because of this, Dowell Myers, a professor in the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California, states in the article, “I wouldn’t be surprised if Arizona starts pleading for Mexican workers.”

Maybe I’m just naive, but hasn’t immigrant—illegal or otherwise—always been an economic and cultural engine in this country? I’ve seen it in my hometown of La Porte, Indiana. When I moved away in the 90s, the downtown was filled with abandoned buildings. Retail had moved to malls outside of the town center, and there was a depressed, post-industrial feel to the place. Now when I go back to visit my parents, I see a downtown filled with restaurants and shops opened by and frequented by immigrants from Mexico. There is a exciting new life in those old buildings and spaces that wouldn’t exist without their presence.

El secreto de sus ojos : a film by Juan José Campanella

I guess it took winning an Oscar back in March to finally bring this movie to St. Louis in June! But it was worth the wait for sure.

The film begins with former federal justice agent Benjamín Espósito paying a visit to his former colleague Irene Menéndez-Hastings. Espósito has spent most of his life tortured by the events surrounding a brutal rape-murder case he covered with Menéndez and Espósito’s assistant Pablo Sandoval in the mid-70s. Espósito wants to clear the ghosts of his past by writing a novel about the case, and he needs Menéndez to give him the case file for his research.

At that point, the film dives back into the 1970s and most of the narrative takes place in a flashback, as we’re shown the events that lead up to Espósito taking the case, as well as his frustrated attempts to find justice for the husband of the murdered victim. Layered on top of this is an intense attraction between Espósito and Menéndez that has more than one obstacle in its way, some serious drinking problems on the part of Espósito’s assistant Sandoval (my favorite character in the film!), and the political climate of Argentina during the 1970s version of Peronism.

While he hasn’t made a perfect film, Campanella, who has worked on American TV shows such as Law & Order, has certainly given us a crime drama that kicks the butt of almost every US-made movie that came out last year. And there is some great cinematography—such as the following use of fútbol in the film.

(Btw, if you didn’t already know, Argentina demolished South Korea today in the World Cup. “El Pipita” put on a scoring clinic.)

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.