Thursday, April 29, 2010

El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha

Don Quijote is one of the most important literary works of all time and the character for whom it is named is one of the four universally great literary figures, along with Faust, Hamlet and Don Juan. It is noteworthy that two of the four great literary characters are from Spain: Don Quijote and Don Juan. In my opinion, the liveliest English translation is by Walter Starkie, available via the link to Amazon to the left of this block of text.

What makes Don Quijote so great? Fair question. The novel's premise is that a certain gentleman, whose name is never quite clear, took up reading books of chivalry -- knights, damsels in distress, giants, dragons, magic potions -- you name it, all the fantasies and characters that inhabit that make-believe world. He would neglect all his duties just to read from sunset to sunrise, sell property just to buy the latest book of chivalry. The lack of sleep and the constant reading took a toll on his sanity. He ended up believing they were true and, more importantly, that he should take upon himself the duty of becoming a knight errant (a wandering knight), to right the wrongs of the world and gain for himself honor and glory.

But there's a big problem. Don Quijote's world doesn't operate by the rules of the books of chivalry. It's far more base, vile and corrupt -- a world in which a man's word is not his bond. A world like ours. A world that has unfortunately, always been. The character Don Quijote is the epitome of an idealist.

Parallels? Sure. Image if someone were to read Louis L'Amour novels about the American West and decide that what the USA needs is for a man to ride a horse into the city and right all the wrongs he sees, according to the "code" of the Old West! He wouldn't last an hour. The police would probably gun him down.

So, the novel is a satire. Cervantes explicitly states that he wrote it to combat the insanity of the constant flow of sequel upon sequel of the books of chivalry that were popular in the 1500s, beginning with Amadís de Gaula.

Don Quijote lasts for a thousand pages or more, depending on your edition's format. In it, you will also encounter parodies of pastoral novels, one of which is a defense of a woman's right to be... left alone to chose her own destiny. You will also be treated to scenes of life on the streets, as it were, imitations of that very Spanish sub-genre the picaresque. Don Quijote is worth every penny you'll spend to buy it and every moment you will savor in reading it. His adventures bring you to the delicate edge where what should be encounters what is and you wonder, with Don Quijote, "why should it not be as he sees?" Why indeed.

Is he crazy? Good question -- it's kept scholars busy for a long time. Is he a crazy man with moments of lucidity or a sane man with moments of insanity? What is the value of freedom? Virtue? What is worth fighting -- and dying -- for? What is patriotism? What is true piety? Why are people as they are? What kinds of people are there out there in the vast world? All these questions are encountered, seldom answered, but enacted in words of seldom encountered eloquence.

The novel Don Quijote is an encyclopedia of Humanism and an endless treasure that always seems to yield more with every reading.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Learn Spanish Online -- If It Sounds Too Good to Be True, It Probably Is

If you Google for sites to learn Spanish online, you'll be overwhelmed by the number of sites that make all sorts of promises. Some guarantee that you'll be speaking Spanish "like a native" in ten days. Others assure you that you'll be saying real Spanish sentences within minutes. Others give away a lot of free resources, good stuff to be sure, only to keep leading you through lots and lots of sales pitch text until you discover that they want you to buy their CD program. Still others will say they have discovered the way to learn and developed -- surprise! -- just the software or online program to help you learn.

Even the most reputable program, Berlitz, makes most of its profit from beginners who usually study in groups large enough that the profit margin is good (especially since they pay the teachers so little).  The class sizes at Berlitz, just like in universities, goes down rather quickly after the first couple of levels. They offer options about class size preference (something universities can't do), and they can deliver. Adults who work diligently with Berlitz for about two years can acheive respectable levels of proficiency, depending on their language background and the affinity of the target language with respect to their own.

Other sites offer overseas intensive, total immersion opportunities. These are great, and appeal to conventional wisdom but this route is not the best for total newbies. The culture and linguistic shock will be the first things on their minds and coping mechanisms will take precedent over conscious cognitive efforts to learn the language.

What is the solution? Realism. Adults learn a second language best in a one-on-one setting, where the teacher is explaining, guiding and focusing explicitly on the nuts and bolts: the writing system, pronunciation, basic grammar and vocabulary.

Let me set the record straight. Learning any language means committing yourself to hard work. Software programs, such as Rosetta Stone are good for beginners, but their utility drops off quickly. At some point, real human interaction is necessary.