Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Piano Bar Spanish (Fried Chicken?)

Have you ever noticed that, wherever you go in the world, there's always a local, playing piano in a bar, singing songs in something that sounds a lot like English, but not quite.

A lot of these guys are very talented musicians,and many play more than one instrument, piano, guitar, flute.
I'd imagine that a lot of them are self-taught, playing by ear.

The only problem is that they have learned the song lyrics the same way!
Rather than going out and buying the lyrics (or, nowadays, just downloading them from the Internet) they must have just listened to the songs over and over, until they memorised them.

Consequently, they often don't quite get the words right. Sometimes it's just missing syllables (so you get 'luhh' instead of 'love') sometimes it's just the wrong word altogether.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not criticising.
It's not always easy for the English speakers to catch all the lyrics of a song (Did Freddie Mercury really sing 'fried chicken' part way through 'One Vision'? That's what it sounded like to me)

I just want to illustrate how easy it is to get lost in a phrase or sentence, because what you heard wasn't what someone said.
Or, in this case, sang.

I was listening, today, to a CD I picked up in Havana last year. It was recorded by a local group called Cuarteto San Miguel (although, when we saw them, in La Pergola restaurant on Calle Obispo, they were a 5-piece, with the addition of an excellent flautist)
I was singing along, as best I could, to a song called 'Buscando la felicidad', when I stopped, and realised that whatI was singing didn't actually make sense.

The line sounded like 'Vayaste, mujer. vayaste'
I can see now where my logic went wrong.
The song continues with lyrics like 'tienes que llorar, tienes que sufrir'
Now, if he wants the woman to cry, and suffer, it's reasonable to expect that he also wants her to leave.
'I want you to leave' is 'quiero que te vayas' - see where I'm going 'te vayas' vs 'vayas te'?
All well and good, except that the imperative positive conjuction of the verb 'ir', for 'tú', is simply 've'. So 'go away' is 've te' (and can be followed by a variety of other words and phrases, in varying degrees of obscenity) and not 'vayas te'

Thinking that this might be a colloquial or alternate method of saying the same thing, I posted a query on the forums at (
I had an answer within 5 minutes!

What was actually being sung was 'Fallaste, mujer, fallaste', 'you failed (or got it wrong) woman' and was in the preterite tense, not the imperative.

So, all this goes to prove two points
Listening practise is VERY important.
It's all very well being able to start a conversation in Spanish if you can't follow what the other person is saying. If what you're hearing doesn't make sense, it likely that it's not what they're saying.
Secondly, never be afraid to ask, if you're unsure. The forums at SpanishDict are just one of many sites where people are pleased to help other learners.

Finally, here's a tiny clip I recorded of the aforementioned group, live in Havana.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Let it be . . .

I've mentioned before how I enjoy listening to music in Spanish.
It's a great way of picking up new vocabulary, while giving you a good excuse to watch Shakira videos ;¬)

How great, then, when a particular song perfectly illustrates a concept you've been learning in class!

Everyone has the pain of getting to grips with the Spanish subjunctive mood.
It's not so much the conjugation, as knowing when to use it, and when not to use it.

You might have used it, for instance, a couple of weeks ago, on New Year's Eve.
When you wish for things for the New Year, in Spanish, you would invariably use the Subjunctive.
For example '(I hope) that I get a new job', '(I wish) that there were no more wars' would demand the subjunctive, as 'espero que' and other verbs of desire, or wishing, do.

The reason I put 'I hope' and 'I wish' in brackets is that they are commonly not actually spoken in Spanish, but implied.
So 'Que tengas una buena semana' literally means 'That you have a good week', but implies 'I HOPE that you have a good week'

This is a very common construction, but actually has two uses.
One, as mentioned, is to imply a wish.
The other is a way of saying 'Let . . . .'
So 'Que lo pase' isn't 'That it happens' but 'LET it  happen' and
'Que yo hable' isn't 'That I speak' but 'LET me speak'

What does this have to do with Shakira?
Watch her video at, and read along with the lyrics.

You'll see that both forms are used in the song.
So, we have 'Que se arruinen los canales de noticias'
'LET them ruin all the TV news channels'
'Pero que me quedes tu
Y me quede tu abrazo'

'But so long as I keep you and your embrace' - it doesn't exactly use the word 'wish', but the sentiment is there.

Anyhow, it's a great song, interesting too, as virtually every verb is conjugated in the subjunctive.
But there's even more to it, as many of the sentences are also written in what is know as the 'Passive Voice'
This means that things become rather complicated when you try to identify the Subject and Object, grammatically speaking.

For example, looking again at
'Que se arruinen los canales de noticias' you might think that the verb is reflexive, and that 'se arruinen' means 'let them ruin themselves', in which case 'los canales' become both Subject and Object, but you would be wrong.

 It actually means 'Let the news channels be (or get) ruined', and doesn't actually specify by who.
See how many more examples you can spot in the lyrics.

¡Que lo disfrutes!

Saturday, 12 January 2013

It's Grimm but it's good practice!

Sometimes, you work and work at your Spanish, and you begin to wonder if you're actually making any progress.
If you don't have anyone to practise with, there's often no way of testing yourself.

Watching Spanish language TV on cable, satellite or the Internet is fine, but it's nice when mainstream TV air an episode of a popular show, which has quite a large amount of Spanish content.

What's nicer still, and a real confidence booster, is when you read the subtitles (after translating for yourself, of course), or listen to one of the other characters translate, for the benefit of the monolingual hero and his sidekick, and realise just how much you do understand!

I had just such an experience, the other night, watching the 9th episode of season 2 of Grimm.
The episode is called 'La llorona' (the crying woman) and makes reference to a South American legend about the ghost of a woman who drowned herself and her children after being abandoned by her lover (or husband in another version)
Ironically, I actually knew this story, as a lot of profesora Ximena's lessons include work on South American culture, as well as language.

Right from the start, there is conversation between a hispanic man and his young son (without any translation, so you're on your own here)
Later the same man talks to the police, and other Spanish-speaking characters join the action. There's a mixture of subtitles and verbal translation, but most of the dialogue is fairly straightforward, without being too simplistic, and takes place at an average pace.

My better half ( that's 'media naranja' in Spanish vernacular, but I digress) was about 20% impressed by my translation, but 80% annoyed that I kept pausing the recording to do it :-p

If you want to check out the episode, and prove to yourself that you're actually making progress in real-world Spanish, you can do the following
1) if you're in the United States, just search for Grimm s2 ep9on NBC, Hulu, or Xfinity
2) if you're not in the US, try

WARNING!!!  ensure your pop-up blocker is active, this site does generate advertising pop-ups, one at least is Adult oriented. Another is for a site called which has big 'Download' and 'Play' buttons on it - DO NOT click them, if the page opens, just close it.

On the page, scroll down until you see a window with several tabs, marked Video1, Video2, Video3, Extra Video.

DO NOT click the link, which looks like a video player, saying 'your system doesn't support this video file', it will just try to get you to download the iLivid player, and other associated junkware, which you DO NOT NEED to view the episode.

Unfortunately, what you DO need is Flash player so if, like me, you have an Android tablet, it's back to the PC for this one.

So, next, click on the Video2 tab, type in the words shown in the window (you may need to click the 'new puzzle' arrow before they appear) click 'submit and continue to video', click 'hide ad and play video' and you're off.

I know this might seem a bit fiddly but it's worth it, even if you're not a Grimm fan.
Of course, there's always the option of searching the torrent sites, but they're even more prone to inappropriate advertising and spurious downloads.

¡Que lo disfruten!

Friday, 4 January 2013

Getting a grip - the sequel

Now, I've never claimed to a Spanish Teacher.
Just like you, I'm still learning, taking regular lessons, and I pretty much write this blog on the fly, without too much preparation, as ideas pop into my head.
So, occasionally, I miss things.

This morning, I woke up realising I'd left out a fairly important example from my last posting.
Ironically, it was the subject of the previous post.
'Tengo que' -'I have to' can, of course, be followed by any verb in its infinitive form.
'Tengo que llamar a mis padres' - I have to call my parents
'Tuve que ir a la escuela' - I had to go to school
'Tendré que preparar la cena' - I will have to prepare dinner.
Obviously this means that its partner 'deber' can be used in the same way
'Debo pagar' - I should pay.

I also remembered that adjectival phrases can be followed by an infinitive, so you can say
'Es interesante verlo' - It's interesting TO see it'
'Es difícil hacer' - It's hard TO do
This is also a good way of avoiding the subjunctive, using an infinitive after an adjective, so you can say
'Es importante comer' -  it's important TO eat, instead of
'es importante que comas' - it's important THAT you eat
Not that you should avoid the subjunctive. It's an important part of everyday Spanish but, until you're confident with it, it's nice to have an alternative.

Let's also throw in the word 'Como' (how), in the sense of 'how to', so -
'No sé COMO hacerlo' - I don't know HOW TO do it

Now let's mix the two together, and get
'Es interesante ver como hacerlo' - It's interesting to see how to do it
That's three verbs in one sentence, and the only conjugation we had to do was 'Es'

That's all for now but, if any other examples occur to me, I'll add them in a future post.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Getting a grip on some basic Spanish

Periodically, I replay my way through the various audio lessons with which I first began learning Spanish.
I find it serves two functions. One is to encourage me, by showing how much I've learned. The other is to help avoid complacency, by reminding me how much I've forgotten.

The other day, I was listening to a Michel Adam recording, when he used an interesting phrase
"A good handle"
He was referring to words or constructions which, once memorised, could easily be used as building blocks, to construct more complex sentences, just by tacking on an infinitive.
This means you can begin to use new verbs, which you've juts learned, immediately, without having to stop and think about how they're conjugated.

One of the simplest 'handles' I can think of is 'Quiero' - 'I want'
Just stick the infinitive form of a verb on the end, and you can ask for all sorts of things.
Quiero comer - I want to eat
Quiero ir - I want to go
Quiero dormir - I want to sleep
Quiero comprar algo - I want to buy something

Of course, you can be a little more polite and  use, say 'me gustaria', or 'quisiera', both of which mean 'I would like'. Then there's 'me gusta' - 'I like' and 'necesito' - 'I need'

If you are wanting someone else to do something, you could try 'puede', or 'puedes' - 'can you?'
'¿Puedes ayudarme?' - can you help me?
'¿Puede decirme?' - can you tell me?
As with 'quiero', there are more polite forms, like 'pudiera(s)' - 'could you?', or 'podria(s)' - 'would you?'

Another construction, which will be familiar, if you've started looking at the Future tenses, is 'voy a' - 'I'm going to'
'Voy a buscar un hotel' - 'I'm going to find a hotel'
This verb'ir' also works just as well in the Past as 'iba a' - 'I was going to'
'Yo iba a decirtelo' - 'I was going to tell you it'
Speaking of which, going back to 'poder' (to be able), if you use the past tense(s) you can say either 'no pude' or 'no podía' so, for example 'no pude entenderlo' - 'I couldn't understand it'

I'm sure, as you progress, you'll come across more of these useful words and snippets, which you can hang infinitives on, to make your speech more interesting, without having to tackle the conjugations of every new verb before you're ready, but here's a goodie, to finish with
'Acabar de' - to have just done something
' Acabo de terminar' - 'I have just finished'  ;-)

¡Hasta pronto!