Category Archives: My Blog

Learning Spanish

I haven’t written much since arriving in Madrid six (!!!!) months ago. I’ve published a few articles, jotted down some thoughts on the city, and even composed a couple of poems, but this will be my first blog post since last July. There are many poor excuses for why I haven’t been writing of late, the least terrible of which is that I’ve spent that time learning Spanish instead. Here then, is a blog post about learning Spanish.

I moved to Madrid six months ago with four weeks of Spanish lessons under my belt. I started with a two-week homestay, during which our conversations rarely progressed past “your dog is cute” and “I like football.” In week three, I bought the wrong train ticket and spent 10 minutes on the wrong side of the turnstiles asking strangers for help. Only afterwards did I realize that instead of asking, “can you help me” (puedes ayudarme?), I had been boldly telling everyone I saw that “I can help me” (puedo ayudarme).

I’ve come a long way since then. What is interesting to me isn’t how far I’ve progressed, but the journey getting here. My Spanish has not improved at a consistent pace: reading, writing, speaking, and listening are four surprisingly different skills, and I’ve struggled at times with each of them. The following is an undoubtedly mundane piece on the intricacies of my Spanish education.

I think my Spanish abilities can be approximately mapped by a venn diagram. The largest circle is words that I have had very little exposure to: I can sometimes understand them in context, but I don’t know how to use them, and certainly do not integrate them into my conversations.

The next level consists of my vocabulary: words that I know, but am not comfortable enough to use regularly. For instance, I know that ‘un rato’ means ‘a while’, and could define it if asked. But I do not know what verbs to use it with, in which contexts Spaniards use it, etc. My lack of practice and understanding of ‘rato’ means that while I know the word, I rarely, if ever, use it in a conversation.

The smallest circle is my conversational vocabulary. This is straightforward – words that I can, and do use when speaking Spanish.

Over the year, words and phrases have gradually transitioned from sounds that I recognize to words that I know, and finally, words that I know. I find it fascinating that these three circles have grown at very different paces. My vocabulary has consistently been much better than my conversational abilities, but every month or two my speaking will all of a sudden take a mini leap. I can’t tell you how or why, but it’s an amazing feeling.

I’ll never be able to speak Spanish like a native. But I continue to learn, and I continue to become more comfortable here. One of my favorite stories to tell about my Spanish occured a month or two ago, when I needed to find a Laundromat to dry some clothes before a trip. The first place Google Maps sent me to was closed, and the second place was a dry cleaners. I tried to tell the man working there that I needed a dryer, but a mental block prevented me from remembering the word. I eventually stuttered out, “these clothes have water. I need them to not have water.”

The guy was confused, and I was embarrased. But most importantly, he understood me after a few moments, and was able to send me in the right direction. Living and learning in a second language is full of moments like this; it requires you to work around gaps in your vocabulary, creating inefficient but clever ways to be understood. And I certainly will never forget the word ‘secadora’ again.

Another skill I’ve struggled with has been listening. It’s a problem when learning any language: locals talk quickly, have a variety of accents, and use coloquialisms. I’ve forgotten most of the French that I learned in school, but years of listening comprehension exercises mean that I am comfortable with the accent, and usually understand French speakers. Having never taken Spanish courses, I’ve had to start from scratch.

Texting and emailing with locals is much easier. When listening, I often need to stop and think, “ok, this word means this and that word means that.” By the time I fully understand the sentence, I’ve missed the next three things the person has said. There are no such time constraints with writing. The written word also has the added benefit of being easily pasted into Google Translate.

For native speakers, languages require very little effort. We consider the content and tone of what we are saying, but the vocabulary, phrasing, etc. is second nature. Nothing about Spanish is second nature. I’ve discovered that the best way to learn is to put yourself out there. Tell a bunch of strangers that you can help yourself, and you’ll be too embarassed to incorrectly conjugate ‘poder’ ever again. Fumble around for a bit in the wrong type of cleaners, and a kind old man will eventually teach you the word for drying machine. I’ve never been the quickest learner when it comes to languages, but I’ve always been willing to make an ass out of myself. That willingness means that I will continue to improve at Spanish, even if it is the hard way. Poco a poco, estoy apprendiendo.


US – Belgium Preview

Another day, another game. Here’s your tactics, preview, and prediction for the US – Belgium match this afternoon:


1) Jozy Altidore

The American striker is fit, but how many good minutes does he have in him? I’d be willing to bet that even Altidore and Jurgen Klinsmann don’t know the answer to that.

This is a stretch, but I’d love to see Klinsmann use Altidore in the same way that Diego Simeone used Diego Costa in the Champions League Final this year: start him, get a good 10-15 minutes out of him, then sub him out. Yes, this wastes a sub. Yes, it means that we won’t have Altidore for the closing minutes. But a pre-planned tactical switch 15 minutes into the half could throw Belgium off (it certainly confused Real Madrid in that match).

It would also be a massive problem if Altidore came on late, then was unable to continue. Especially now that extra time is on the table.


2) Key Matchup: Fabian Johnson vs. Eden Hazard

Eden Hazard is a matchup nightmare for any coach. He’s lightning fast and unbelievably elusive on the ball. His movement is excellent, and he’s equally capable  of cutting in and shooting, or driving baseline and crossing (full disclosure, he’s also my favorite player).

We were worried about Fabian Johnson matching up with Christiano Ronaldo against Portugal, and he responded with the best game of his life. Johnson was superb, defending his area well and choosing the right moments to bomb down the flank and wreak havoc in the Portuguese defense. CR7 was not at his full health, but the US will again need him to slow down one of the best in the world, while simultaneously cause problems for either an injured Thomas Vermaelen or an ineffective Jan Vertongen.

Ronaldo switched to the right side at times against the US (his assist was from the right), and it would not be surprising to see Hazard do the same – he often does so for Chelsea. Demarcus Beasley vs. Eden Hazard scares the living daylights out of me.


3) Prediction

Belgium are the better team, but they just haven’t shown it to this point. I think this match is heading to extra time. The US has had the tougher travel schedule (and tougher matches) in this tournament, but it is the Belgians that seem to be hurting more at this point. If it comes down to who has the most bodies and the most in the tank with 15 minutes to go, I’m taking a Jurgen Klinsmann side every day of the week. 2-1 US in 120 minutes of action. Can’t wait.

US – Portugal Preview

The US is back in action again tomorrow with another massive match, this time against Portugal. Kickoff is at 6 p.m., and the match will be played on ESPN, Univision, and at every bar in the country.

After Germany and Ghana drew earlier today, the scenario for the Yanks vs. Portugal is somewhat clearer. Win and they’re in. Draw, and they’ll need at least a point against Germany (or a Ghana/Portugal draw) to go through. The US will still sit in second even with a loss to Portugal, but they’ll have some work to do against Germany.

Three thoughts on the match:

1) Who starts for Jozy?

Jozy Altidore’s skill set is unique, at least on the US roster. He holds up the ball so well, allowing midfielders to make runs off of him, and giving the defense some respite from the waves of attack that they will see against any team in this group. With Altidore hurt, the question is, who replaces him?

Aron Johannsson was the substitute forward against Ghana and had a decent, if uneventful showing. Johannsson scored 26 goals this season for AZ Alkmaar, Altidore’s old club. Chris Wondolowski is the other striker on the US roster, and he’s shows that he is a more than capable goal poacher, a valuable skill in its own right. Other options include using Mix Diskerud in the No. 10 role behind Dempsey, or putting in Graham Zusi or Julian Green on the wing and switching to a 4-5-1. Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision will say a lot about his gameplan against Portugal.

2) US needs to attack down the right

A lot has been made about Christiano Ronaldo’s injury and Pepe’s suspension. But there is a third Real Madrid player that will miss the match for Portugal: Fabio Coentrao. Coentrao is a dynamic left back capable of both defending his side and bombing down the left flank in support of Ronaldo, but he was stretchered off the pitch during Portugal’s loss to Germany, and is out for the rest of the tournament. André Almeida will likely start in his place, a 23 year old reserve that plays several different positions for Benfica and has just six caps to his name.

Simply put, the US needs to take advantage. Ronaldo will be on the left wing, and he will likely be unable and/or uninterested in tracking back to provide cover. Fabian Johnson will likely have his hands full with the Balloon d’Or winner, but this could be an excellent opportunity for Alejandro Bedoya or Zusi.

3) Don’t be satistfied with beating Ghana

Much has been made of the Yanks finally getting over the hump against Ghana. It was an emotional game for both the players and the fans, with #WeGhanaWin becoming a popular refrain.

Klinsmann cannot let his team be satisfied with the win. The US has an excellent opportunity against a depleted Portuguese squad, and could become the first team in this group of death to clinch a spot in the second round. They’ll need a better game from Michael Bradley, as well as a great performance from whoever starts in place of Altidore.