Back to Menus in Spain, Ponferrada (Interlude)

Before I continue with the other subparts of the Aroi Hotel’s two restaurants (see previous posts) I want to do an interlude of an amusing side story. I was trying to determine if the Mesón la Taberna that I found earlier was really the correct one since Google Maps calls it Meson Cerveceria La Taberna and that’s the photo I showed in a previous post. But why would the Hotel’s homepage refer to it by one and Google another if it’s really the same thing?

So, after reading the description from Hotel Aroi’s homepage I did some virtual roaming around the Hotel Aroi Bierzo Plaza (in Plaza Ayuntamiento). You can search for this in, possibly appending Ponferrada (my browser remembers this as qualifier). I recommend this because it is interesting. The hotel is located on a larger plaza, Plaza del Ayuntamiento and Google has 360° views and street views right in front of La Violeta (and/or the hotel itself). Note that Meson Cerveceria La Taberna (Google doesn’t do the accents right) behind La Violeta (my clipping doesn’t show the hotel but it’s just to the left of La Violeta


You can get to a Google Streetview directly in front of La Violeta. If you walk (virtual) a bit, to the right (or just look on the map view), you will see a restaurant El King Kong (not King Kebab, also in this plaza).





The reason this caught my attention is that here in Omaha we have a local fast food chain (been here since I was long ago in high school) and I wondered, really!, they have a franchise in Ponferrada Spain! So I had to take a look, via this link (or click on the Google map). The link I provided gets to the entire menu on one page with tabs along the top to just look at each section. Clicking on the menu icon on the Google map, brings up, in Google Maps, information about this restaurant and also photos.

This photo immediately told me this is not the King Kong’s from Omaha. Looking at the pictures I saw it was a fairly “classic” Mexican restaurant. So, given Spanish people don’t much like spicy (hot) food, I wondered how this transplanted restaurant would match Mexican restaurants elsewhere.

Now while I’ve only been in a tiny bit of Mexico once (and didn’t eat). Mexican restaurants are the most popular “ethnic” restaurants in the USA. AND, in many cases, especially in California and Texas, they aren’t “fake” transplants (those do exist, e.g. Taco Bell) but the Latino population is large enough now in US there are totally real Mexican (although primarily northern Mexican) in the USA, especially in some place like San Antonio (not those for tourists on the River Walk or even the Mercado, but more hidden and treasured by locals).

The midwestern part of the USA also has a large Mexican origin population, including here in Omaha where there are some “real” restaurants targeted at Latinos (also a few great mercados where you can find ingredients you’d never find elsewhere). But again the connection to me is that our favorite restaurant, in fact the only one we’ll risk going to during COVID is Plaza Azteca in Atlantic Iowa (sure, you’d expect to find one there). We’ve eaten Mexican all over the US and Plaza Azteca is hands-down the best. BTW, “Mexican” food is complex because there are all sorts of regional influences, so most of what you find in the US is largely the Tex-Mex variety, plus the interesting offshoot of that in New Mexico. Recall that Texas (where I was born) was part of Mexico for a long time, so actually, other than a few more recent additions, Tex-Mex is not so derivative, it is the regional food of northern Mexico and southern US.

So after looking at the decorations and the photos of food to see how “authentic” I thought King Kong is, given my claim that USA has numerous “authentic” Mexican restaurants, well, at least it is a good imitation. Without actually tasting the food I can’t tell and in some photos it’s certainly not items I’ve ever seen (for instance, they make their quesadillas like a hamburger with two tortillas, instead of folded over as would be usually done here, the guac looks a little dicey too; and the margarita is way too tiny). And their decoration only favors the Day of the Dead which is not that common in restaurants here.

But then I took a look at the menu and a few things seemed strange. Under Entrantes they had SuperMachos? Come on, really, you can’t spell that right! But then I noticed other odd spelling and detected a pattern and then realized they were having fun with word play or puns.

Chimpanchile? Guacamono? And that’s the one that woke me up, in my Spanish lessons, well, mono is monkey. And then you see the theme – Chimpxxxx. In the burritos section of the menu they have Donkey Kong, which I assumed they picked because someone there was old enough to remember the video game. And they watch US movies to have a taco Puerco Kill Bill. And back to the primate theme Orangutacos. I’m missing the joke on Gilitaco de Gilipollo (Gila Monster?). There are a couple of others that I think are word play, but I don’t get them, maybe you can.

Now under quesadillas seeing nopales was unexpected (I have seen photos of cactus in Spain, but never seen it on any menu); and I’ve never seen jalpaños on any Spanish menu, but cuitlacoche (spelled in an H in Mexico) really blew me away; they call it hongo del maíz, which is technically correct, but it makes more sense as ‘corn smut’ (which I’ve actually seen in cornfields around here as it is fairly rare). And in their list of beers they do manage to get some Mexican ones in there. It’s funny they show items with jalapeños with the hot chili symbol as that is only beginning to be hot here, but at least their additional salsas make it up to four chilis since it’s using habernos.

It’s also amusing that their menu is almost entirely in Spanish, whereas the same menu in USA would be in English but with the Spanish words as needed, which is the one reason that without really knowing it many people in USA know more Spanish than they think they do. And so I learned totopos fritos which didn’t entirely look like real word, but sure enough it would just be ‘chips’ here (both fried and corn would be assumed).

So this was a fun digression to discover this, and, frankly, if I were walking around this plaza, comparing restaurants, I suspect I’d eat here instead of the bolitto cocido (now that I’ve learned what it is, another subpart I’ve added to this post series).

In general I had the view that Spain had little interest in Mexican food but the photos did look like locals rather than tourists. However, the band, sad – I guess they can’t find the costumes for Mariachis.

So now I’ll get back to my sequence on Hotel Aroi, finish Mesón La Taberna and then cover La Violeta, but, guess what, in exploring those I find yet another diversion, so just a teaser for the next posts.

Back to Menus in Spain, Part 1 (Ponferrada)

This is another post of how I keep switching my focus from the original intent of this blog (which documents a project I’m doing) and I’m coming full circle back to my original studies.

638 days ago I switched my focus on studying menus in Spain to actually learning Spanish. Many people said: a) I couldn’t read menus without knowing Spanish, and, b) knowing Spanish means I could read menus. After 43 months on this project I’m prepared to conclude: a) one can read menus just fine with only rudimentary Spanish, a good dictionary, Google Translate and searches for hard to find difficult terms, and, b) knowing Spanish, at least through all the learning techniques I’ve tried does relatively little in helping to read menus (and for that matter, in discussing them with the camarero unless you get a lot better at the speaking part of a new language than I have).

In the 638 days learning Spanish, despite my conclusion it isn’t much help in reading menus, I’ve tried many different ways to learn. My primary work (at least an hour a day average) is Duolingo (which is actually fairly similar to other online learning tools, I’ve sampled most of those) and I’ve now completed all of the drills (L5) in about 2/3rds of the lessons (aka skills) for something in excess of 100,000 individual drills!

Meanwhile many advocate doing reading instead and so I have numerous books (or online stories I’ve found) where I’ve tried both “intensive” and “extensive” reading (not worth explaining). Later I found lots of online listening exercises including a couple of great podcasts and several great YouTube tutoring exercises. And I finally I’ve now finished Spanish 1 (somewhere between CERF A1 and A2) with 30 2-hour live sessions (in Zoom mostly with a native Spanish speaking tutor).

In short, about the only thing more I could do is pack and move to Spain, to some small town, where no ones knows any English and I’d have to speak/understand Spanish exclusively. So, IOW, my efforts are certainly equivalent to at least one high school year of Spanish, maybe a bit more. And, this is not a lot of help reading menus.

And since the teacher for my live classes was in Mexico and providing a lot of Mexican life (not just Spanish) including food and dining I began to get more interested in menus in Mexico. I like (and know from US experience) Mexican food better than Spanish, but I did acquire multiple Spain cookbooks (as well as two extensive cooking/recipe online sites) and even growing Padrón peppers in our garden and learning to prepare them as in a common appetizer in Spain. So I started to look at menus in Mexico, but: a) fewer restaurants (at least Mexican food) have online menus to study, and, b) so many of the terms on menus are either native language (or derivatives) and thus not in any Spanish dictionary, including the official one, and/or the terms are just very unique to Mexico and might not even apply to other Spanish speaking countries, say Colombia, where I’ve also been studying an excellent cooking and recipe site.

And, for some other post in detail, but a brief mention here, I’ve gotten very burned out on all this study, plus I beat myself up for all the mistakes I continue to make (of things I’ve “learned” but still often get wrong). It’s frustrating to me that for something half a billion people easily do I struggle. I admit to having zero talent for languages, plus I can fall back of the being old (actually really old for this point) and that learning a new language is easier for the young.

But the key point is that it’s not much fun anymore. And, in comparison, I didn’t get tired of reading menus. All this Spanish study consumes almost all the energy I have and therefore I’ve essentially stopped working on my original project, i.e. building a software tool to “translate” menus in Spain, which I’ve also learned can’t really be done, since it’s not just words (to English words, even counting grammar and structure), but you have to include Spanish cuisine as well to understand a menu since many dishes have no English (at least USA) counterpart.

BUT, I remain undaunted on trying anyway.

So for all these reasons I’m back to studying menus in Spain and thinking about how to create my corpus to feed my specialized translation tool I still hope to create.
So with all this as background I’m going to do a series of posts as elaboration of the background material, starting with some menus in Ponferrada Spain, an interesting city along the Camino de Santiago. I hope, Dear Reader, you’ll could along for the ride for perhaps more interesting material than this preface.

Nuevas aventuras en español

Perhaps the old, “seek and ye shall find” applies for this post. Two days ago I complained how my routines for learning Spanish (most of what I do during my day, being retired and now stuck indoors due to COVID) was getting tiring. Well, I just got a new burst of energy. Sometimes to supplement class type study I just watch the many Spanish language TV channels on my cable subscription or try to find Spanish TV shows or movies I can follow. As is well known the speech is way too fast for me to keep up, but I do hear/understand some of the words; some people claim just continuing to do this will eventually produce comprehension. Well, maybe, but while listening might train me to hear the sounds of the language better I doubt I’m going to guess the meanings of words and plain old-fashioned cram vocabulary is required.

Also, I’ve never been a big fan of YouTube, not necessarily due to any specific content, but the whole idea. Unfiltered stuff can go there and get huge audiences, so all sorts of misinformation is rampant, esp. climate change denialism and anti-vax (and generally anti-science), and of course a huge dose of truly horrible political propaganda. Not my favorite source of information.

But when it comes to Spanish it is a rich resource. I’d done some exploring before, looking for some material, mostly course material which is usually pretty dull and dry and I have a hard time paying attention, plus it’s like some meals one eats, an hour later you’re hungry again. And since most of the content is aimed at beginnings, I get a lot of repetition of stuff I already know and then when I do find something new I rarely retain any of it. I think it’s partly I’m just used to TV as idle time entertainment, not learning, so the material is in one ear and out the other with nothing sticking.

Well, that’s a long windup to get to my point, so ya basta.

Somehow, while doing some searches I stumbled on my first find, the YouTube channel, Why Not Spanish. There are a ton of episodes and the hosts, Cody and María are a delight. The balance of María as a native speaker and then Cody as a second language speaker still learning is a great format for entertaining and informative lessons. And I get the extra kick that my 600 days of less fun type of study is paying off because I can understand most of what they’re saying (of course, as a teaching video they make that a bit easier than just a TV program with native speaker).

Once I got into the part of YouTube with this kind of content Google’s suggestions (right hand side of web pages) revealed other channels, some also interesting and helpful (so many I haven’t sampled them all yet), but then I found another delight, Butterfly Spanish. Ana, the host/teacher delivers a real punch and is quite fun to watch as well as doing a great job of organizing and presenting the material. Connected to the subject of my blog you might sample Vegetables in Spanish, or Learn to Order Food in Spanish, or How to order food in Spanish, Learn how to talk about eating in Spanish, and covering some of the material I’ve presented What’s the difference between Spanish in Mexico, Latin America, and Spain?

Ana reminds me a bit, in personality and method of teaching, to my current teacher, Erika. Both discuss subjects in English, but insert lots of Spanish (often then repeating in English). So in addition to whether the lesson is the student gets a lot more practice hearing. Interesting I find hearing both Spanish and English intermixed in a conversation is very helpful to me. But also, with both people I encounter via video (our teacher is using Zoom from Cuernavaca) the incredible enthusiasm, energy and friendliness is a huge incentive to learn Spanish and go meet people like this in real life.

So just after admitting to some learning fatigue I have a new burst of energy, thanks to these people (and others I’ve discovered or am still exploring).

Spanish Study Fatigue

When I started this blog to study and analyze menus in Spanish I had no “required” activity; I could pick and chose what I’d look into and when. Then I decided to actually try to learn Spanish. It’s been fun but now it’s become a chore.

See I don’t really have any knack for languages. I can manipulate symbols, find patterns in raw data, analyze and comment on findings – that’s easy. But none of that requires actually committing anything to long-term memory.

OTOH, learning a language means practice, practice, practice. And more practice. If you stop for a while you start forgetting what you learned. Use it or lose it – progress is easily lost if you don’t constantly refresh your memory.

Now learning your first and initially only language is easy. What else do you have to do. Every waking hour you’re exposing the that language, listening, even if purely passive in the hearing range of some conversation (as a baby would), reading (what else could you read except that language), writing and speaking. But when it comes to a second language, especially one you don’t actually ever need during your waking hours, except in the context of study, you don’t get that constant repetition.

And here’s a tough thing. When you start learning a language and don’t know anything, it’s actually pretty easy. Most of the online learning systems depend on this, starting from scratch in a few weeks you think you know something.

But here’s the bad news. Even you learn faster than I do you’re looking at years before you even approach fluency. And worse, the more you learn, the more you forget. You learn a lot of words and some prose constructs you rarely use, a variant of the 80-20 rule. IOW, 20% of the language you use 80% of the time. I can’t even do anything without seeing y or el or para, so naturally that’s easy. But how often do I use pasillo or pizarra or patines.  Even if you only look at menus or recetas, how often do you see berza, cebollino or remolacha

If you don’t repeat what you’ve learned you will forget. I use two primary techniques to learn Spanish – Duolingo (self-study, online) and now my live class. I’ve done Duolingo for almost 600 days, faithfully every day, through now 98 of the lessons. I’ve done nearly 90,000 individual drills and have accumulated at least 5000 word forms. My real classes are now nearly 50 hours of immersion (Spanish only conversation and lessons).

I’m quite pleased with the progress I’ve made, given three times before I failed to make any headway at all trying to learn Spanish. But now it’s becoming an ordeal. It’s not just my age, as it is commonly believed that learning another language is harder as one ages and much harder in one’s twilight years, but I got nowhere with this language, that half a billion people can easily speak fluently, even when I was younger.

So, of recent I’ve gotten a bit tired of my routine I’d developed over 1.5 years and began to try other things. Also I decided to focus more on learning new material than repeating old material.

What are the consequences?

My error rate has skyrocketed. Constructs that were once easy and I now miss in stupid ways. It is inevitable that repetition, given the same amount of study time per day, is going to decrease. If you’ve done ten lessons and you do 5 lessons per day, half new material, half repetition, it will only take you four days to repeat all previous drills. But push that to 100 lessons and more than half the study time to newer material now the average duration (I keep tons of records to analyze) between repeating a lesson is now over 15 days. And that, being a statistic means a classic Gaussian (bell curve) distribution which means some lessons are repeated every 30 days and some others every day or so. In fact, the program I wrote for myself to schedule what lessons I should do now has a bias to almost force me to repeat lessons I haven’t done for 30+ days. That bias is now slowing down my time devoted to lessons in new material.

And I’m only 61.6% done with Duolingo lessons, about 40% done with vocabulary from various “stories” I used for reading practice and only about 20% done with the vocabulary at least mentioned once (that I can record) in my immersion lessons. Despite working really hard it feels like I’m just falling further and further behing.

And then every now and then I go try to read online real-world stuff (not the graded materials for learning, like CERF A2 stories which is about where I’m at). Discouraging. As much as I feel I’ve learned trying to deal with real world Spanish makes me feel like I’m a baby, hardly able to communicate at all.

But, and the point of this post, is the more I learn, the more I forget, plus the more I realize I need to learn. Almost every day, certainly every week I learn something (not just more words) that I hadn’t seen before, so, por ejemple, now I just learned what se vende queso really means, i.e. using the passive instead of active voice (I’d muddled through this before, catching most of the meaning (simple) but not the actual phrasing).

So now, every day I feel like doing something else than just drills, I end up feeling guilty. If I don’t do drills there another something I’ll forget. Go a week without drills and my error rate (which I record and analyze diligently) noticeably increases. And that’s on top of the fact that many mistakes I made months ago I make again today. Try as I can and the usual difficulties, ser vs estar, preterite vs imperfect, por vs para, I still make almost as many mistakes as I did when I first learned about these things.

I feel like if COVID weren’t stopped me, now if I went on a vacation I’d forget everything I’ve learned.

So this is turning out a bit like my exercise routine. Almost every day I do miles on my stationary bike and my treadmill. If I skip one day, it’s fine because I’ll actually have rested a bit and the next day doing exercise is easier. But skip a couple of days and then it’s hard to do the same workouts I routinely did. And try as I do to avoid the ravages of age, my obsession with record keeping and programs shows my steady decline even when I manage to keep it up.

So when I realize how much more I have to learn losing any progress I’ve made feels awful. And that makes me a slave to all this. Simply put: a) the language learning isn’t fun any more, and, b) I’m not even doing the things I originally wanted to do, i.e. reading menus and recipes. Just trudging along every day.

And, por cierto, I’m retired and don’t even have the time conflicts of work, plus now stuck at home due to COVID, even much of any other activity to do. I clearly have the time but now I’m really losing the motivation.

So I really hope the COVID thing gets over (as almost every other person does) so I can have a goal. If I were headed to Spain next April or even Oaxaca in December there is a reason I need to be able to have some Spanish fluency. Sheesh, even something locally available, shopping in the Latino grocery stores, would be an incentive, but unfortunately the highest local infection rate is in that part of the state. I’ve love to ask a grocery what the difference is between jitomate and tomate (not just one is used in Latin America and the other in Spain).

I started all this because I had extra time and I had just doing nothing as all my life I’ve worked hard on projects. It was fun, now, I’m not so sure.

First Mexican Menu (Tepoztlán)

After repurposing this blog to also look at Mexico (previously I’d limited my study to Spain) I immediately began studying recetas and found number wonderful sites. But my Spanish teacher (from Cuernavaca, via Zoom) decided to ad lib our weekly lesson and use going to restaurants as the context. ¡Perfecto! Even better she mentioned a nearby town that was fun to visit, Tepoztlán. This town is about two hours from Mexico City and thus popular with city folk looking for some pleasant time in the country. In addition to several resort hotels and numerous spas there were some interesting restaurants to look at.

Now in general I’ve found fewer websites and/or menus for restaurants that appear on Google Maps or in a couple of online ratings site (tripadvisor has been the easiest source for me to use for study, no idea how good it is at rating). So I was very lucky to find this restaurant, with a good website and online menu:

Mesa de Origen and its menu

Since I can now stumble through written Spanish with only a few dictionary lookups (or cheats with Google Translate) I found some descriptive material, and I’ll give you a couple of extracts, Spanish and side-by-side Google Translate:

El equipo formado por nuestro chef Lacho Ruiz realizó un profundo trabajo de investigación, comiendo y probando de todo en Tepoztlán y los alrededores, para elegir a los mejores productores y asegurar que la estrella de Mesa de Origen, sean siempre los ingredientes y las recetas de las abuelas locales. The team formed by our chef Lacho Ruiz carried out a deep research work, eating and tasting everything in Tepoztlán and the surrounding areas, to choose the best producers and ensure that the star of Mesa de Origen, are always the ingredients and recipes of the local grandmothers.
Conocemos perfectamente el origen de cada cosa que toca el paladar de nuestros invitados: los chiles, la cecina, las verduras.

Nada proviene más allá de Morelos y todo se consume de productores pequeños y locales, favoreciendo el comercio justo.

We know perfectly the origin of everything that touches the palates of our guests: chilies, beef jerky, vegetables.

Nothing comes beyond Morelos and everything is consumed by small and local producers, favoring fair trade.

Morelos is the state where Tepoztlán and Cuernavaca are located. While Morelos is the second smallest state I eventually discovered it has quite a few local producers. So while “local” is a huge fad and often more marketing gimmick than real, it really looks like this restaurant goes all out to use local products and traditional dishes. That, of course, means it is quite a bit different than your usual Mexican restaurant (esp. of the USA border areas) and very different from restaurants in Spain; IOW, an excellent place to use for my first menu analysis.

Now you don’t need to know much to realize, while they share most of Spanish, Mexico and Spain are very different, in many ways and especially  la gastronomía. But really the first thing I noticed came from looking at maps, which I love to do. Few of the place names in Spain are very hard to “read” (recall mentally) even for a total non-Spanish speaker, but Mexico, wow, it is tough. It’s bad enough ingredients include things like huitlacoche or cacahuazintle or chilacayote or chapulines  (yum, look that one up for yourself, something you’ll never see in Spain) but then there are places like Huitzilac, Tlainepantla, Tlayacapan or Tlatetelco. It’s somewhat like the confusing words you’ll see in Basque Country, because, it’s not really Spanish (there it’s Euskara, the Basque language; in Mexico it’s Náhuatl the pre-Hispanic native language).

So after a couple of years (virtual) wandering around Spain it’s quite a transition to try (virtual) wandering around Mexico. And so while I often encountered rather specialized terminology on menus in Spain (not really Spanish) this is even a more daunting challenge in Mexico. My original project to create a translation app specialized on menus would be even more difficult for restaurants in Mexico.

So continuamos. Let’s just look at a bit more of what this restaurant describes as its culinary focus, La Cocina Tepozteca: (Note: cocina means a lot of things, it’s derived from cocinar (to cook), cocina is the conjugation for he/she/it/formal-you cooks, but it’s also the noun for the kitchen, and then further it often is used for ‘cuisine’. It’s not clear to me when to use cocina or gastronomía, so one sees both)

Una cocina tradicional está hecha de tierra y de campo, de semilla y de fruto generoso.

Tepoztlán ha estado habitado por milenios y la auténtica cocina local refleja esa historia.

Los platillos se crean de acuerdo a la época del año, la fiesta del calendario, los productos que en ese momento prodigan la tierra y los animales.

A traditional cuisine is made of earth and field, seed and generous fruit.

Tepoztlán has been inhabited for millennia and the authentic local cuisine reflects that history.

The dishes are created according to the time of year, the feast of the calendar, the products that at that time lavish the land and animals.

La cocina tepozteca está influenciada por deliciosos sabores prehispánicos, cuya base principal es el maíz procedente de los alrededores. Tepoztec cuisine is influenced by delicious pre-Hispanic flavors, whose main base is corn from the surrounding area.

While everyone probably knows that corn (maíz) is the base ingredient for cuisine in most of Mexico and you find some corn in Spain, it’s really important. In a previous post I mentioned that tortilla (a kind of omelet) in Spain is something entirely different (and ubiquitous) than in Mexico so then these two corn-related terms are interesting and often represented in Mexican cuisine: huitlacoche (sometimes known as corn smut, this is a disgusting looking fungus that grows on corn, but actually is a delicacy); I’ve actually seen this growing on corn plants on some of my geodashing where corn is everywhere, but huitlacoche is still rare; or cacahuazintle, old heirloom variety of white dent maize, that actually is what you should use for pozole (instead of white hominy) but it’s just a bit tough to find.

Here’s a couple of “local”ingredients (extracted from menus you might want to look up) but also examples how knowing Spanish, even deep food vocabulary doesn’t help since these are placenames (like I often found on menus in Spain):  queso de cabra de Huitzilac, jamón curado de 3 Marías, cecina y chorizo de Yecapixtla and queso Oaxaca (not that local).

So on to a few more items. The text at the website also mentions this:

Y de postre las famosas nieves de Tepoztlán y sus exóticos sabores deleitarán tu paladar. And for dessert the famous Tepoztlán snows and their exotic flavors will delight your palate.

This is not a funny Google Translation, nieves actually is snow and in the context of food and in this area it is a kind of icy, low-fat ice cream. If you virtually tour with Google Maps in many street views you may see this on signs. Without trying it I’d guess it’s something in between sherbet and gelato. So this area is famous for it.

One other thing that took a bit of getting used to, both in the rare menu that has prices (more common that menus in Spain list prices, nice for a virtual traveler) and on signs advertising food is $ in prices. Of course in Spain (for us americanos, and I can use this term: people outside the US resent us appropriating “american”, given the peoples of the entire western hemisphere are “american”, but none of us are part of EU) ∉ is a learning experience. So when a simple ice cream dessert can cost $110 it’s a little easier to realize this is pesos and not dollars, so $4.89 is not quite so bad.

So we’ll just look at a couple of items from Platos Fuertes. Now it took me a while to get used to Segundo as the usual term in Spain for “main course”, so “strong plates” (the literal translation) wasn’t obvious, but, it is simple, just the main course.

Verdolagas y habas

Purslane and beans

310 ($13.66)

Now figuring this one out took some work and the Google Translate is pretty crocked. If you line up the words you’ll realize GT just ignored Chamorro. And kinda for good reason as it’s hard to find, although it does occur in the authoritative DLE. Where the best definition, in Spanish, En las carnes de abasto, pantorrilla de un animal (In the meats of supply, calf of a animal.) Not very helpful, eh? Well, the best I could find is this a particular way of cutting the meat and so is either Beef Hind Shanks or Pork Shanks. But it was the manzano that took some more work. The best I could figure out is referenced in this source, this is just a type of pepper, not common outside Mexico. But is the tomate to be taken literally (tomato, although I learned from my Spanish teacher jitomate is used in Mexico for ripe/red tomatoes). If you look at the photo from the linked page, it looks a lot like a Habanero but apparently is not so hot. IOW is this a tomato sauce seasoned with Manzano peppers, or just a pepper sauce (tomate being a qualifier of manzano?) or even what another search shows a San Marzano tomato. Now we grow San Marzano’s in our garden, but my sister always claimed ours were no good compared to those from Italy, but this restaurant is all about ingredients from Morelos Mexico. SO, you make your best guess. I should set up a gofundme page so I can go to Tepoztlán and find out.

So how about

Camote y huauzontle
Sweet potato and huauzontle


Now you’d find conejo on menus in Spain so I assume rabbits in Mexico are the same, but, whoa, lots to do here. Mole de Ceniza. Mole is one of the most complicated subjects you can find in Mexico. Even before looking at these menus I know quite a bit about mole. Now, I didn’t always know. Despite living in California and eating a lot of Mexican food, my sister (to whom I dedicate this blog) somehow learned about mole. We spent a whole day wandering around the very pleasant San Antonio Texas (river walk area) looking for mole, like it was something mystical, almost spiritual. Of course, for some, but not all the vast varieties of mole, chocolate is the magic ingredient (not a big surprise since chocolate is a new world invention). So, I could write many pages (assuming I really know more than my basic knowledge) about mole, so I’ll simply say this: 1) Ash mole is an amusing translation by GT, but Ceniza is a bit more helpful, and, 2) and one of my favorite Mexican cooking TV shows, Patti’s Mexican Kitchen, gave me a clear idea of “ash” as mole. So I’m guessing this is the more commonly called (and very famous) mole negra from Oaxaca, where the “ash” part of this comes from a preparation step where banana leaves (or sometimes corn husks) are set on fire and completely burned and then become part of the sauce.  Hey, we gotta guess this virus under control so I can go there and find out what this is.

So many items, so little time so I’ll close with one more (and maybe come back, because I have more items to discuss).

Maíz cacahuazintle y huitlacoche
Peanut corn

Now first I’ll point out the usual GT bad translation choice: yes, lengua is language (in fact, this is what Duolingo taught me) but it’s really ‘tongue’ (a synonym for language, but in this case, literally tongue). It’s also amusing GT turned Maíz cacahuazintle into Peanut corn, which is somehow GT deciding this is connected with cacahuate, but where did the -zintle get in there. Anyway, already I’d discovered this ingredient, that hierloom type of corn. I’ve made pozole many times, including a hybrid version merging another recipe. Mostly I use white hominy. But once in New Mexico, we went to a Latino mercado and found numerous ingredients, including some dried corn that might have been cacahuazintle or maybe just dried hominy (I had no awareness of any of less back then).

Now if you’re thinking guaxmole is the familiar guacamole, guess again. They’re not just spelling this different because they have an entrada, MOLCAJETE DE GUACAMOLE RÚSTICO. So go this source (in fact, the recipe site I’ve previously referenced) to see it’s something entirely different, so don’t think that what appears to be cognates (in this case of another Spanish word) actually are.

I could go on, but I’ve exhausted all my time to write this post and undoubtedly really exhausted your time to read it if you’re still with me. So I’ll just give you one more to wrap up and you can try to figure out what this is. What the heck is the difference between tomates and jitomates and what is galanga?

Haba verde, requesón y agua de chile ancho y galanga

Green bean, cottage cheese and ancho chili water and galangal


I really wish I could head to this restaurant right this minute. Spain has some appeal to me due to the whole legend and mystique of the Camino de Santiago BUT, I’m sorry, Spain, this food looks a whole lot more interesting.

Come on fortuity, be nice to me, and end the COVID disaster so I can actually do this newest item on my bucket list.

Repurposing this blog

I started this blog in 2017Dec with a narrow purpose of documenting my development of a sufficient corpus of menu terms, focused on Spain, in order to develop a translation aid. This is still my interest but due three years of work AND recent circumstances I’ve broadened my interest.

I started with the assumption I could achieve my goal without actually learning Spanish. While I still believe that is possible I nonetheless decided to try to learn Spanish, which despite being a fairly easy language to learn, my several previous attempts completely failed. I’ve reported some progress on this goal (i.e. going reasonably well) already so I won’t repeat. However my study methods have steadily progressed now including a two-hour weekly class, moved to Zoom which means I now have the access for all types of study, including interaction conversation.

So all that, plus the COVID outbreak, has induced me to reconsider my goals and thus the purpose of this blog.

I had assumed, nearly three years ago, that by now I would have actually made a real trip to Spain to put my effort to test. Since I wouldn’t be doing travel alone I’d also had to compromise my travel plan (small villages in the vicinity of the Camino de Santiago to really get immersed, avoid the tourist spots (mostly) where Spanish would be irrelevant) to a more typical tourist plan (big cities, especially Barcelona where Catalan would be more useful), in fact, so watered down it wasn’t very appealing any more.

The prospect of a less interesting (to me) trip to Spain triggered a brief interest in going to Ecuador as neither of us have ever been in the southern hemisphere and thus it became a jointly interesting alternative. For me, while Ecuador has plenty of tourism, it looked like being able to communicate in Spanish would be more important in Spain, especially since that trip’s agenda had become the places where English would be widely spoken.

But, alas, we’re happy we didn’t book our trip, tentatively for April 2020, back in the fall of 2019. Who could have predicted travel would be almost completely shutdown! And Ecuador, in addition to previously unexpected economic problems (and thus social disruption) had a fairly severe outbreak. Being old enough to be in the more vulnerable age group and uncertain how our adequate (at home) health insurance would have worked in Ecuador I’m happy we didn’t stranded there, and, sad we didn’t get to have that experience.

So on rethinking possible travel plans I began to reconsider Mexico, specifically Oaxaca. Mi esposa has already been there and loved it. In turn I learned that driving around there was reasonably doable, which is important to me as I like to explore the countryside, not just hang where all the other tourists are. So if I can take a long walk, at least I can get out and given my main GPS can be adapted to Mexico we could even do some geodashing. At the time of this new trip planning: a) it looked like Mexico was actually doing better with COVID than the USA and literally Oaxaca could be safer than Iowa (where our favorite and very authentic Mexican restaurant is and was closed, and, b) that most countries would get COVID under control so that travel would be possible again in 2020.

But that isn’t to be either. Mexico now has high growth rate in cases and, of course, the USA, due to its extremely unwise policy of re-opening too soon is spiking again, quite possibly even worse than the first wave, possibly leading the other countries banning us from entering their countries as disease carriers which would very likely include Spain and perhaps even Mexico. I can’t exactly go on a three week vacation (probably the longest we can muster) and spend two weeks on it in quarantine!

So what does this have to do with my project and this blog?

Well, it means: a) since USA is being totally stupid about COVID, there is no timeframe where I can now reasonably predict that foreign travel might be possible, certainly not in 2020, and I believe even unlikely for 2021, at least until the fall, and, b) actually learning Spanish is something I can do while stuck at home and eating in Spain is not. Even if a vaccine that actually works (instead of the fantasy vaccines the great scientist Jared Kushner is pushing) is available in early 2021, it will probably be at least a year before enough people have received it to have reasonable herd immunity developed.

While I was working on Spanish menus I did learn a lot, which I may summarize in a future post, including that, well, food in Spain while sometimes intriguing BUT it is not as interesting, or flavorful as Mexican food, which is wildly more diverse by visiting Mexico than one can find in the USA, despite Mexican food now being the most popular “ethnic” cuisine in the US. And it happens that I like to cook (me quiero cocinar) and I’m reasonably good at it, ingredients for Mexican food are readily available here (and btw, shopping in nearby predominantly Hispanic stores is a change to practice a little of my Spanish anyway) I’ve decided to shift my project focus to …

reading cookbooks and recipes in Spanish (and accumulate food terms) …

… instead of menus from Spain.

Needless to say there is a huge amount of material available online and in print. I already have about 10 cookbooks, although all in English, for Mexican food so it’s a fairly simple transition.

During my searches on websites in Spain I did discover that either descriptions of food (on menus) or recetas I often found actually were better material to use as study materials for learning Spanish. In fact, that’s part of why I have (still unfinished) massive list of cooking verbs, which I’ll now expand to all sorts of cooking terms.

So now a focus of someday visiting Mexico, which would have been great anyway, for the food, and all manner of Spanish text related to cooking, will be the material I’ll be using for future posts.

Decades ago I had actually tried to accumulate a glossary of food terms in Spanish. At that time I didn’t realize the huge diversity of terms, while all in “Spanish”, that were very regional. And, in particular, I found all sorts of terms from Mexico (also Puerto Rico) that would be almost unknown in Spain, especially as many of those terms are really Spanish-ified indigent language, for instance, the most obvious chocolate  (English or Spanish) which is from xocolātl. So, if one just compiles a glossary from other glossaries and dictionaries one finds on the Net quickly the compilation becomes a mashup of terms that are only known in a few places, IOW, not the canonical “Spanish”. Already in my class, where our teacher is in Cuernavaca, I learned some interesting differences, e.g. Duolingo teaches tomato as tomate (as do most dictionaries) when in Mexico my teacher explained it’s jitomate (for a fully ripe tomato and tomate as an unripe tomato, or the reference to the plant, not its fruit). So on my second try that’s why I only used terms I found on actual menus in Spains (sometimes, amusingly, still including terms from Mexico since in a few big cities in Spain there were Mexican restaurants)

So, as long as I’m careful I can explore Spanish cooking materials from Mexico and add new terms to my corpus, but being careful to learn if the terms are more localized to Mexico and/or would be known by anyone in Spain. IOW, I’ll still achieve my original goal but with even more material.

So, my re-purposing is really not so big a shift and I hope to find some interesting food terms to discuss in the future as well as continue to plod along developing my app.

A couple of food pictures

I just felt like posting a couple of my photos. I have a ton, though only a few I’ve converted to screen saver backgrounds. And, since I’ve never been there, none from Spain (alas, when I was close, in Portugal, I didn’t have a digital camera). But pictures are pictures and these show an interesting contrast, with what I’d expect to find in Spain.


This is from an open air market (mercado) near Oaxaca Mexico. Oaxaca is a popular foodie destination and some of its charm is access to wonderful local ingredients. When I took this picture I knew no Spanish so hopefully I can do a market stroll again and have a bit of conversation.

So here’s an interesting contrast:


It’s not completely clear this is China (Beijing) but given I saw markets like this in Japan (before I had a digital camera) it’s very easy for me to tell the difference: a) no English in Japanese markets, b) no katakana or hiragana in the signage in China, just pure Kanji, and, c) just a bit more utilitarian and less luxury oriented than Japan. This is a real market, not just gifts for party hosts, as so many in Japan.

I’ve always enjoyed going to markets, mostly observing from a distance as I didn’t speak the language (even once in Germany where I was amused to see artichokes from California, given I’d come from California).

I think markets, and good in general, say a lot about a culture. While many people only encounter border and “gringo” Mexican food, wow, is this a foodie culture. And China is staggering. I once had dinner with a local who was (politely) offended by my referring to some food item as “chinese food”. He said to me, again politely, you wouldn’t call Italian and French food “European”. He had a point, cuisine in the country of China is enormously complex and has too many major variations to ever be put under a single label.

There really is no such label as “Spanish” food, which is entirely appropriate because Spain and Mexico are really different, but then Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina, and more are really different. People put down TexMex or CaliMex, but after all those geographical areas were part of Mexico and its food heritage almost as long as they are part of the US.

Food is just a wonderful way to explore the world. We all have to eat, so it’s really fun to eat well. On my first European trip, a bicycle ride through Germany and Austria an Iowa couple (which has a lot of German heritage) was so excited to get to Munich and go to McDonalds. Are you kidding me? The best French Fries (amusingly often called pome frites in Germany) were fantastic!

Since I can’t go there, previously and especially now with COVID, I at least got one popular item from Galicia. My wife is an avid gardener and I only participate in that a little, but once while following her shopping for seedlings I saw Padrón Peppers. We got a couple of plants and had a substantial yield. I tried two ways to imitate preparing them as one might get in a restaurant in Santiago – fried (lots of oil) and even deep-fried (oh, yum, I sold my wife on a childhood favorite of okra and so have a good frier). Tried both crunch Kosher salt and sea salt. I get the fascination. Most of the peppers are mild, but every now and then one is hot (at least by Spain standards, still pretty tame by USA standards). We got so many from a couple of plants we kinda got sick of them by the end of the summer.

Well, anyway I digress but every now and then I’ll try to throw in some photos for a bit more visual interest than my usual long and tedious “academic” posts about Spanish food vocabulary.

A beautiful song

Every now and then I do a digression from my main blog topic of translating menus in Spain to something else, in this case some music from Spain. In my attempt to actually learn Spanish many sources suggest using a variety of techniques, not just a single method of learning. And one, of course, is listening to videos, in Spanish.

Fortunately here on our cable, plus with Netflix and Amazon Prime there are a many programs, some originally in English, that are in Spanish, sometimes with closed captions (more literal than subtitles). But perhaps the most challenging listening assignments is trying to hear the vocals of Spanish language songs. Now actually I often can’t hear the lyrics in English language songs so this is especially challenging for me. While words are not so clear in songs, however, one advantage is that the speed is much slower than listening to spoken Spanish, especially news programs.

The first time I tried to listen to a song was a consequence of stumbling on a Spanish audio version of the movie Desperado with Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek on cable. While almost all the actors have Spanish has their first language the movie was actually made in English. Despite its heavy dose of violence I’ve watched the English version several times. Watching the version on a Spanish channel  was amusing seeing it dubbed into Spanish and with closed captions, given it takes place in Mexico with Spanish speaking actors.

But the part that really got my attention was the opening scene with Banderas singing (if it was him). A bit of searching led to discovering the song he’s singing is Cancion del Mariachi and there is a video on YouTube of this opening scene. Doing a variety of searches I found the lyrics, in Spanish, and various English translations (some pretty bad, a few amusingly not very literal). I merged these lyrics, plus the Google Translate (embedded at end of this post) and then re-watched the video. The first time, with the visual guide, I heard almost every word and after a few more tries I could completely follow the song. Unfortunately, take away my visual cues and I don’t hear so much, which is an interesting lesson in itself.

So that was fun but just background for this post. Later I found another “advice on learning” source that suggested listening to music on radio or YouTube. And they gave several links and that’s how I discovered this song which I really like. At first I was confused thinking Ella Baila Sola was part of the song title but I later learned this was a very popular female duet from Spain. The song itself was titled: Cuando los sapos bailen flamenco. I could translate all but sapos and didn’t believe it when almost the only choice (in multiple dictionaries) was ‘toads’, so When the Toads Dance Flamenco. I then figured this was some kind of expression like “chickens have come home to roost” in English or Hablando del rey de Roma (speak of the devil). But, alas, I can’t find any meaning for the title, so it just must be words the writer chose.

So if you try to play the YouTube (it’s short and very nice song, IMHO) here are some lyrcis to go along with it and you can try to follow the words. And, for me, after nearly 500 days of trying to learn Spanish I do most of the words but can’t follow the song without my visual guide, so my audible skills are way inferior to my reading skills, but other than recordings I do zero conversation in Spanish which is pretty critical to ever developing verbal skills.

Good Spanish transcript Google Translate Good Human translation
Me alegra tanto oir tu voz aunque dormido I’m so glad to hear your voice even though asleep It’s so good to hear your voice although you’re asleep
por fin viajabas como en tus sueños you were finally traveling like in your dreams You were finally travelling like in your dreams,
buscando un sitio para volver looking for a place to come back looking for a place to go back to
y sin poder olvidar lo que dejas lo que has aprendido and without being able to forget what you leave what you have learned And without being able to forget what you’ve left, what you’ve learnt
van a cambiar las caras los sueños, los días y yo the faces will change the dreams, the days and I Faces, dreams, days are going to change and
lentamente te pierdo I slowly lose you I slowly lose you
Repeat: Como un regalo que al ensuciarse tiró quien limpiaba Repeat: Like a gift that when dirty was thrown by the one who cleaned Like a gift that when gets dirty and is thrown away by the one who is cleaning
como un vaso después de beber el trago más dulce like a glass after drinking the sweetest drink Like a glass after drinking the sweetest gulp
con un adiós, con un te quiero y con mis labios en tus dedos with a goodbye, with a love you and with my lips on your fingers With a goodbye, with an I love you and with my lips in your fingers
para no pronunciar las palabras que dan tanto miedo, so as not to pronounce the words that are so scary, To not say the words that are so frightening,
te vas y te pierdo you go and I lose you you go and I lose you
Me alegra tanto escuchar tus promesas mientras te alejas I’m so glad to hear your promises as you walk away It’s so good to hear your promises while you go away
saber que piensas volver algún día cuando los sapos bailen flamenco knowing that you plan to return someday when the toads dance flamenco Knowing that you plan to come back when toads dance flamenco
y yo te espero ya ves, aunque no entiendo bien que los sapos and I wait for you you see, although I do not understand well that the toads And I wait for you, you see, although I don’t quite understand that toads
puedan dejar de saltar y bailar lejos de su charco they can stop jumping and dancing away from their puddle can stop jumping and dancing far from their pool
Porque mis ojos brillan con tu cara y ahora que no te veo se apagan Because my eyes shine with your face and now that I don’t see you they go out Because my eyes shine with your face and now that I don’t see you they turn off
porque prefiero que estés a mi lado aunque no tengas nada because I prefer you to be by my side even if you have nothing Because I prefer you being beside me although you haven’t got anything,
te vas y te pierdo you go and I lose you you go and I lose you
(back to repeat) (does repeat)  


So here’s a similar kind of transcript for Cancion del Mariachi

Spanish (very close match to song) merge of several human xlates Google Translate
Soy un hombre muy honrado I am a man of honour I am a very honest man
Que me gusta lo mejor And I fancy what is best That I like the best
Por mujeres no me falta I don’t miss women For women I do not lack
Ni el dinero ni el amor Neither money nor love. Neither the money nor the love
Jineteando en mi caballo Riding on my horse Hustling on my horse
Por la sierra yo me voy I am off to the mountain. By the mountains I go
Las estrellas y la luna And the stars and the moon The stars and the moon
Ellas me dicen donde voy Tell me where to go. They tell me where I’m going
Ay, ay, ay, ay Ay ay ay ay! Ay, ay, ay, ay
Ay, ay, amor Ay ay love Oh, oh, love
Ay mi morena Ay my dark lady Oh my brunette
De mi corazon Of my heart From my heart
Me gusta tocar guitarra I like to play guitar I like playing guitar
Me gusta cantar el “song” I like to sing the ‘song’ I like to sing the “song”
Mariachi me acompaña Mariachi accompanies me Mariachi is with me
Cuando canto mi cancion when I sing my song When I sing my song
Me gusta tomar mis copas I like to drink my drinks I like to take my drinks
Agua ardiente selo mejor moonshine is the best Burning water is better
Tambien el tequila blanco Also white tequila, Also white tequila
Con su saleda sabor with its salty taste With its salty flavor
Ay, ay, ay, ay Ay ay ay ay! Ay, ay, ay, ay
Ay, ay, amor Ay ay my love Oh, oh, love
Ay mi morena Ay my dark lady Oh my brunette
De mi corazon of my heart From my heart
(long guitar solo)    
Me gusta tocar guitarra I like to play guitar I like playing guitar
Me gusta cantar el “song” I like to sing the ‘song’ I like to sing the “song”
Mariachi me acompaña The mariachi accompanies me Mariachi is with me
Cuando canto mi cancion when I sing my song When I sing my song
Me gusta tomar mis copas I like to drink my drinks I like to take my drinks
Agua ardiente selo mejor moonshine is the best Burning water is better
Tambien el tequila blanco also white tequila, Also white tequila
Con su saleda sabor with its salty taste With its salty flavor
Ay, ay, ay, ay Ay ay ay ay! Ay, ay, ay, ay
Ay, ay, amor Ay ay my love Oh, oh, love
Ay mi morena Ay my dark lady Oh my brunette
De mi corazon of my heart From my heart
Ay, ay, ay, ay Ay ay ay ay! Ay, ay, ay, ay
Ay, ay, amor Ay ay love Oh, oh, love
Ay mi morena Ay my dark lady Oh my brunette
De mi corazon Of my heart From my heart

De nada por usar mi glosario

Thanks for using my glossary.

I’ve noticed an uptick in hits on my glossary and verbs pages and that’s fine with me. I’ve spent a lot of time searching for clues about Spanish food words online and have found a lot of material. So now that I’ve assembled my list I’m happy to give back. I hope no one extracts by glossary directly, not so much because I’m worried about IP rights (intellectual property) but because anything online should definitely be considered of dubious authoritative meaning.

In my glossary I tried hard to get reasonably accurate English equivalents, but: a) I have only a little Spanish fluency and thus might easily make mistakes, and, b) without thorough proofreading and review even correct information may have errors, especially typos.

Also exactly where (geographically) a word is used matters. Once when I just blindly compiled and merged some glossaries I found I didn’t realize that the same Spanish word, in Spain, in Mexico, in Puerto Rico and other Spanish speaking countries doesn’t have the same meaning, especially for food. If you think this is a minor issue, see what you get (being used to Western Hemisphere food) when you order a tortilla in Spain or tostada in a Mexican restaurant in USA.

I think I’ve found most of the online glossaries and dictionaries and be assured I’ve found lots of mistakes and inconsistencies in them. So it would be a big surprise that mine also doesn’t have numerous mistakes. I’d love it if I had readers that wanted to comment corrections or even disputes about word meanings. I’ve found a few web sites where people do debate the meaning of Spanish words, but, thus far, haven’t managed to bring that kind of discussion to my blog, which I’d really like. But, Oh Well, at least someone is extracting something from my glossary.

I’d also note that both my glossary and my cooking verb list is an ongoing project, especially the verb list. I am spending as much time as I can immersed in Spanish, but recently mostly actually learning Spanish (I gave in and finally signed up for a real course, not just my self-study). So the time I have to continue to improve my glossary (I have a lot of source material I could compile, edit and add to my glossary) and I really need to get back to my verb list (quite extensive, but not thoroughly researched or published).

I enjoy doing this project even without any sharing with anyone, but it’s even better if the work I’m doing somehow benefits someone else. But, again, while I don’t mind people extracting material from this site, just be aware its quality is somewhat suspect and you should not think this is some authoritative source. Use my material but use your own judgment about its accuracy.

A year with Duolingo learning Spanish

Hurrah for me! Yesterday I did my 365th day with Duolingo, learning Spanish and “playing” with other languages. As I’ve mentioned before I originally set out to develop an extensive glossary of Spanish terms for food and for restaurant menus WITHOUT attempting to learn the language itself. I was relatively sure I could accomplish this goal despite persuasion from others that I should learn the language.

My main resistance to trying to learn Spanish was failure in my previous attempts using conventional learning materials, initially audio tapes, then later with DVDs. These materials weren’t much help but also used a different learning technique (also more traditional) than Duolingo. So when I discovered Duolingo AND began to try to learn some Spanish with it I found it was much more helpful. And the early success I had encouraged me to keep going, ultimately leading to much of my available time devoted to learning Spanish rather than working on menus, as was my original intent.

Not only does Duolingo take full advantage of newer cloud-based technology it seems to have the attitude of making learning “fun” through various gamification tactics. Since it’s free and its revenue comes for ads it also encourages you to do more study than you might otherwise so. Over the year Duolingo has even increased these incentives with various “competitions” (just for bragging rights) but designed to give you more “rewards” than just learning the lessons. All this worked for me and I soon found myself nearly addicted to doing Duolingo every day.

I mostly used the PC version of Duo instead of the phone app version. Mostly I hate trying to type on phones (plus spell correct initially changed some Spanish words to English and thus I got the drills “wrong”), but also typing, especially after I learned how to setup typing on my PC to type Spanish (i.e. accents and ¿ and ¡ easier. Since Duo drills involve a lot of typing (transcribing audio, translating sentences) the PC version worked better for me.

As I used Duo more and more I decided to also explore other languages. While I’m doing the Spanish lessons thoroughly (each “skill” has five levels, in Spanish I complete all five levels before moving on (the next lesson is “unlocked” after finishing level 1, but I do all the levels) I also decided to have “fun” with other languages. I had two years of French in middle school with a very conversational approach and then two years of German in high school with a more conventional “academic” approach. Duo is a mixture of these two styles of learning language. So, despite German being my least well learned foreign language I actually rushed through the lessons and got my first “owl” (completing all lessons to at least one level) in German. I remembered French better (plus it’s an easier language) so I went through more levels in French but haven’t finish the entire “tree” (the complete set of “skills”).

For fun I also did some Portuguese, Italian and Catalan. I’ve visited Portugal, without knowing any of the language (again I got tapes and a book and learned nothing). I’d had some exposure to Italian because my first attempt, decades ago, at developing a glossary for food/restaurant terms was for Italian, after once visiting a restaurant in California where the menu was entirely in Italian and I was lost ordering. So since I, someday, want to do Italian and Portuguese more thoroughly I only did a few of those lessons. Interestingly learning Catalan is not available from an English base; instead you learn Catalan from Spanish and since I didn’t know Spanish I couldn’t get far with those lessons.

And, then, after reading a lot of the comments the Duo community generates I also decided to start the learn English from Spanish tree after I’d done about 20 skills in Spanish. The vocabulary used in the English lessons generally matches the vocabulary in the Spanish learning so by the time I started “learning” English I knew most of the Spanish words used to create the drill questions.

So the consequence of all this is I’ve: a) learned quite a bit, and, b) piled up a lot of the various scores Duo uses for incentives to keep learning. So, as a summary I’ve accumulated 118,559 XPs. Usually 10 XPs are granted for completing a drill (usually about 20 questions) with some bonus points, in any language. Also I soon discovered “stories” (for Spanish, English, French, German and Portuguese) which are a dialog (rather than isolated drill sentences) and generally completing one of the stories generates about 24 XPs. So this translates to having done about 8000 individual sets of drills or stories, or about 20/day, which translates to about an hour a day, well over the “minimum” (15 minutes) that Duo recommends. That means I’ve done about 400 hours in Duo and they claim 35 hours is equivalent to a semester. Now for Spanish I’ve acquired 71,691 XPs which means about 60% of my time in Duo is for Spanish or approximately 160 hours. So, have I done five semesters. NO WAY! Using a different system of rating language fluency, the CERF system, I’ve done online tests and have just barely achieved the A1 level (and maybe 1/2 of A2). One could expect to achieve this level of fluency in less than a year of classic classes (either high school or college level). I’ve spent more hours than classes would require but I’ve learned less. BUT, I’ve learned way more than I could have expected based on previous (failed) attempts.

I’ve also now done 78 of the Spanish “skills” so I’m only about half way through what Duo has to offer. So projecting it’s going to take me another full year to finish the Duo Spanish course. I would expect after completing my next year to be somewhere past the A2 level which should be good enough for most “tourist” conversations in a Spanish speaking country. Duo makes the learning fun so I do believe I will finish all Duo has to offer for Spanish and then I’ll need to supplement my learning with other sources.

In addition I have received 1114 crowns, an award given for completing any level within a skill. For Spanish I have 388 crowns which is nearly half of the 797 maximum. I’ve also gotten 300 crowns in French and 288 in German. Duo says I’ve learned 2174 words in Spanish. Since I’m obsessed with this I wrote my own program for drills (smart flashcards) and so I accumulated all the vocabulary I’d encountered in Duo (along with both masculine and feminine forms (mostly for adjectives) and plurals, even though Duo doesn’t count all these variations). For verbs I also enter all the conjugations (the five persons used in all Spanish countries, Duo doesn’t do much with the plural “you” (vosotros)). By now at 78 lessons I’ve had three conjugations in indicative mood (present, preterite and imperfect) and one conjugation in imperative. Spanish verbs are fairly regular but nonetheless there are still two indicative tenses (future and conditional) I haven’t hit (yet) in Duo and all of the subjunctive. So still a lot to do with verbs. But according to my drill file (the XML that contains all the words from Duo, with all the variants) I have “learned” (at least encountered) 1453 “root” words (the masculine singular or verb infinitive) and 3129 total forms; IOW, assuming I actually know all these (and I usually remember about 98%) that’s learning around 9 “words” per day. And that is a tiny fraction of the vocabulary (even only considering fairly common words) of Spanish. For instance, in comparison, I’ve encountered 128 verbs and meanwhile, as part of my original project, I’ve found over 500 verbs related to cooking. I believe one needs to know around 300 verbs in order to at least stumble through simple conversations, so again all these metrics indicate I’m still about a year away from any conversation in Spain or Ecuador (I could probably stumble through ordering in a restaurant, in conjunction with the 2000+ words I’ve accumulated through menu study (only a few of these appear in Duo).

SO, IOW, I’ve made a lot of progress, more than I could have expected, and simultaneously I have a huge amount left to learn. Maybe I’ll keep doing this blog long enough that eventually I can claim “fluency” in restaurant and/or cooking conversation.

All of this is a pleasant achievement for me BUT there is a major flaw in my learning. Most of what I “know” is in written form, not audible. Duo provides some practice in listening but almost none in speaking. Thus “conversation” would still be nearly impossible for me.

When I first heard audible drills in Duo (beyond just a word or simple phrase) it was all just a jumble of sound. Spanish is spoken rapidly and pauses between words are almost non-existence. Thus “parsing” an utterance was nearly impossible for me, at first; now, it’s just hard. So I’ve tried to supplement Duo with an obvious resource: TV. My cable subscription has tons of Spanish language stations, some of which have closed captioning (not the same as sub-titles) and a few channels allow selecting either English or Spanish captions. Listening to those, without captions, I hear almost nothing, and with captions I hear a little more. So I have a huge hill to climb before I could understand what a waiter might say to me in a restaurant.

Speaking and listening are different problems. While I have no way to practice speaking, nonetheless I can probably stumble through that better than listening. While speaking I can take time, in my head, to think of what I want to say. And while I might pronounce the words badly I could probably (mostly) use the right words, at least for a simple request or query. But listening one has to do in “real time”, i.e. the sounds flies by and you get it or not, with no control over the speed.

So I have two major challenges, on top of learning to read/write Spanish and that is hearing (just have to get faster at parsing utterances) and speaking (pronunciation, plus details of sentence structure that sound correct, rather than sorta Spanglish). I do know that knowing more words (and at least having heard them in Duo exercises) makes hearing a sentence easier. Listening to Spanish TV I literally wouldn’t “hear” anything without the work I’ve done, but, still, unlike reading (where I can skip an unknown word and “read” the rest, then maybe guess the unknown word from context), I’ll just have to have a ton more practice before I can hear.

So on one hand I’m happy with my first year of Spanish and simultaneously totally unhappy about how little I really do know, especially for a conversation.

So, Dear Reader, catch up with me in a year and see whether I can claim at least simple conversational fluency. At least, both from Duo and my menu reading project, I should be able to read the menus and order in Spain.