« Self Re-Publishing -- Bed | Main | "Non-Traditional" Career Paths »

Jan 29, 2004

Breaking Out of Beginner's Spanish by Joseph Keenan | review

Click image to read (most of) the first chapter, 
"Ten Ways To Avoid Being Taken for a Gringo."

At last, I am restarting my Spanish studies via the newly-expanded curriculum at Durham Tech¡Que bueno!  It's been nearly a year since my last efforts via a two-week trip to Mexico, where I kept doing the Spanish equivalents of "Ich bin ein Berliner."  I hope that a fourth semester will get me to where I can order a meal in east Durham without fear of public mockery.

To celebrate, here is a short profile of the very excellent Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish, in which journalist Joseph Keenan provides 200+ pages of the things that native speakers know but that language classes never have time to teach.

Por ejemplo, haz de cuenta que estés en tu primer visita en México.  Imagine that you’re on your first visit in Mexico.  Unexpected things are happening to you, and Keenan wants to help.  Even if he can’t fix your problems, he’ll help you speak your mind.

Disbelief Oh, how you will long for some good expressions when your reservations are not respected, when the bus doesn’t arrive after all, or when the town you want to visit apparently no longer exists!  A good rule for visiting this magical kingdom is to suspend your disbelief, but when you don’t succeed, you’ll need to express it. Here’s how.

No Puede Ser – Literally, “It can’t be,” even though of course it often can be and is.  This is the ultimate expression of disbelief, the one that conveys “I am no experiencing this!” or “This is not really happening!”  Good for when your breakfast bill tallies up to several thousand dollars.

No Me Diga – This covers the laconic “You don’t say,” as in English but is also widely used for “Don’t tell me that!” or “It can’t be!”  Slightly less desperate than No puede ser, it can be used when you are told that this performance is sold out.

¿Cómo? – A simple but underrated form of expressing mild shock.  If the cabbie says it will cost you seventy-five dollars to get across town, you can very politely reply ¿Cómo?—as in “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that, so let’s try a new answer.” Robert DeNiro’s character in Taxi Driver, had he been speaking Spanish, might have simply said ¿Cómo? for “You talkin’ to me?” To embellish this little phrase, you can add a form of the verb decir: ¿Cómo dijo? or ¿Cómo dice?

Seguro – This means “sure,” so it only works for disbelief if you ladle irony all over it.  The effect is like the English “Yeah right.”  Other expressions used ironically to express disbelief are claro, ¿en serio? and cómo no.  “Yes, Mr. Sanchez, your check is in the mail.”  Cómo no.

Keenan offers even more on the topic than I've listed above, but I figure this blog was getting long enough, so I'll stop there.  Just trust that I love this writer as much as I've ever loved anyone who I only know through their writing.  Near as I can tell via Google, Breaking Out of Beginner's Spanish is the only book that Keenan ever published.  A tragedy on the one hand, but on the other—it must be great to retire with a perfect record.

11:07 PM in Reviews | Permalink


would you come with me next time i go to get tacos at los portales? i mean, i LOVE the tacos, but it's the only thing i feel comfortable ordering. i would like to try some other things on their menu... i'm just afraid of ordering tongue or something equally icky.

everything is in spanish there. i once asked for a glass of water and got something that wasn't water. i need help.

Posted by: christa | Jan 30, 2004 12:35:57 PM

Christa, but of course. And even if you don't get what you want, at least it won't be your fault.

My immigrant Dad loves the joke about the immigrant to the US who had little English and needed help to get served at the breakfast counter. A friend tells him, "just say 'Apple pie and coffee, please."

This works fine for a few week, but eventually the immigrant is dying for something new, the friend suggests, "No problem. Just ask for 'eggs, toast, and juice.'"

The next morning, the immigrant places his order, all smiles. Then the waiter asks, "So how do you want those eggs -- scrambled? sunny side up? over easy? And do you want white bread, wheat bread, or sunflower? Oh, and will that be orange juice, apple juice, grapefruit juice, or cranberry?"

[long pause]

"Apple pie and coffee, please."

Posted by: Phil | Jan 30, 2004 3:24:09 PM

Another good phrase to remember is: No me fregas. It is the ultimate expression of disbelief.

Posted by: Senor Wences | Jan 30, 2004 4:52:02 PM

mmmm.... pie!

Posted by: lisa | Jan 31, 2004 4:05:44 PM

Please tell me there is an Icelandic equivalent for this book. I am getting tired of saying (the icelandic version of) "Speaka de Inglish? I talk little of the Iceland, okay?"

Posted by: Adda | Feb 1, 2004 2:37:52 PM

Adda, I think that book is yours to be written.

Looking for a clever Icelandic expression to include in this comment, I came across "Iclandic: Ancient and Modern," a nice little monograph on the language.

From an example in the document, I was surprised to notice some similar word roots in the singular conjugation of the verb "carry." (The third word in the example is pronounced like "thu").
Ég ber [I carry] Þú berð [You carry] Við berum [We carry]
Of note: the first illustration in the attractive document is a photo of three attractive young women, presumably chatting in Icelandic, perhaps saying something like, "Damn, only 300,000 people in the world speak our mother tongue. Time to get jiggy with the English. Or maybe Spanish."

Posted by: Phil | Feb 1, 2004 5:23:21 PM

Adda told me about my favorite thing in Icelandic. There is a way of saying "thank you" that literally means, "On behalf of me, thanks."

I also have a book of rude French expressions that you would enjoy.

"Are you ashamed of your menus? No? Then perhaps you might give us some."

Posted by: dbt | Feb 2, 2004 6:40:13 PM