Food, fashion, and faldas

Forget Spanish-language newspapers as a vocabulary builder; I've subscribed to a frivolous women's magazine.

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    En Español: Spanish vocabulary words appear on the wall of a second-grade classroom at Loma Verde Elementary School in Chula Vista, Calif.
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I am in my second attempt to learn Spanish. My first attempt many years ago was an utter failure. Despite straight A's in five college classes, the language seemingly evaporated from my head immediately after graduation. Now, however, I am taking the advice of one of my Spanish professors. He suggested that his students subscribe to a Spanish-language newspaper to improve their reading fluency. This always seemed like a painful idea. Reading about bombings, currency devaluation, or melting icebergs is difficult enough without slogging through the same information with a dictionary in tow.

Instead, I have subscribed to a frivolous women's magazine in Spanish, and I indulge myself without guilt. "I'm learning," I remind myself, as I pore over the glossy photos and captions. Surprisingly, the magazine's frothy mix of celebrity gossip, recipes, beauty advice, biography, and decorating tips is as educational as it is engrossing. It covers many of the same subjects found in my old college textbooks.

Body parts, clothing, and colors? The fashion section tells me that faldas (skirts) are long again, and nothing is as glamorous this season as a silky bufanda (scarf). Coral is the latest color for labios (lips), and gris perla (pearl gray) will be the "new black" next year.

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Similarly, the gossip columns and celebrity photos provide far more interesting examples of faces and expressions than the cartoon illustrations I remember from textbooks. No one could appear so aburrida (bored) as Paris Hilton at her umpteenth photo shoot, and George Clooney looked muy sorprendido (very surprised) at the latest attack of los paparazzi. An unnamed starlet also seemed surprised to be caught muy despeinada (very unkempt) while sneaking out of a fashionable club.

Some of my favorite expressions are untranslatable but unforgettable. Many a Hollywood couple has been seen in a dark corner of a restaurant, acaramelados. I know they aren't really caramelized, but I can imagine them melting all over each other.

Described in my college textbooks, food was a simple meat-and-potatoes affair, salads no more than lettuce and tomatoes. But thanks to the delicious recipe section of this magazine, I now can add delicacies such as pepinos, aceitunas, and alcaparras (cucumbers, olives, and capers) to my ensalada (salad).

And through unfortunate practice, I have learned – and remembered – the important difference between cucharadas (tablespoons) and cucharaditas (teaspoons) when using ingredients such as polvo de hornear (baking powder).

For vocabulary concerning marriage, divorce, childbearing, romance, scandal, personal bankruptcy, or personal riches, I need only read the many articles about the realeza (royalty) of the world. As these articles chronicle the lives of monarchs and nobles, their progeny, and their current and ex-esposos (ex-spouses), almost every vicissitude of life is described, sometimes in embarrassing detail.

My reading skills have improved without ever using a dictionary, but until this magazine comes in an audio version, my listening comprehension will remain poor. When some of my co-workers speak Spanish, I can no more decipher the running trill than I can parse the song of a mockingbird.

I know that the best way is to take a language immersion course some day; Guadalajara and Monterrey, Mexico, have excellent programs, I understand. If anyone there wants to discuss the best seasonings for albóndigas (meatballs) or the latest social appearance of Camilla and príncipe Carlos of England, I'll be ready.

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