From Nicholas D. Kristof´s bi-weekly op-ed column in The New York Times:
“Here’s a one-word language test to measure whether someone really knows a foreign country and culture: What’s the word for doorknob? People who have studied a language in a classroom rarely know the answer. But those who have been embedded in a country know. America would be a wiser country if we had more people who knew how to translate “doorknob.” I would bet that those people who know how to say doorknob in Farsi almost invariably oppose a military strike on Iran.”
I know it! I know how to say doorknob in Spanish! All bow down to my semi-fluency! Well, one of the various ways . . . I am not exactly certain which word is most common here in Colombia. But, it doesn’t matter–I’m in the know. Perilla. Which I learned because it’s the last name of a new friend here in Bogotá, whose lovely little blog you will find to the left. Nicholas D. Kristof is making me feel so happy right now, like maybe I actually am doing a thing or two right down here, “embedded” in this country and culture. America is a wiser country because of me and my like. Sometimes I’m so hard on myself and get down about what my level of Spanish should be (perfect) versus what it is (less than). I still have a long, long way to go. Still, I am going to stop and be proud of myself for just a few moments. You can be proud of me, too.
Now, not that I have ever had to actually use the word . . . Still, I have a feeling that one day it’s going to open a lot of doors.
I wrote that in March of 2010. This may come as a shock, but Vocabat isn’t my first blog, nor my second, nor my third. I didn’t become a blogging diva overnight, you know–it took several years to cultivate my prowess. I’ve been spilling ink and my heart all over the internet for a long time now. O sea, I’m no spring chicken, although I wrote solely for myself before. Now, I try to think about what might prove interesting and useful to others who, like me, love the Spanish language. Or maybe we’re alike in that you too get a kick out of language in general, or maybe there’s some sort of deeper soul connection. You tell me.
Back to door knobs–I adore these kinds of pop quizzes, as silly and arbitrary as they may be. Pass and you feel on top of the world; fail and you feel so demoralized that you have a serious (and often necessary) heart-to-heart with yourself. Self, you’ve let me down. It is not acceptable for you to flaunt this kind of arrant ignorance. How can you not know the name of something you touch every single day of your life, and multiple times a day at that? This cannot and will not continue. Consider yourself warned. Yikes. While no fun at the time, I love the long-term effects of failure. I find it oh-so-efficacious, don’t you?
Regarding the door knob test, the standard word in Colombia for door knob is chapa (after reading the article, I conducted a rigorous polling of colleagues in Bogotá). Other possibilities include perilla, picaporte, pomo, tirador, and agarrador. I passed the test de pura chiripa, but I still knew enough to do Kristof proud. How did you fare?
I remembered this test today because door knobs came up at work during an autism diagnostic exam that lasted several hours. I had to ask the parents a million questions, one of them being whether their son could turn door knobs to open doors. A diferencia de two and a half years ago, all of these words came to me at once. Woohoo! It was a nice problem to have, believe me.
No doubt about it–the size of your vocabulary is very, very important. It’s by no means everything, but don’t blow off learning substantial amounts of new words and phrases just because you’ve reached a decent speaking level. We always know much less than we realize, and we greatly limit ourselves when we can only talk comfortably about a few “security” topics. Trust me, I fall into this trap frequently. Don’t be shy; we can all step out of our comfort zones together.
(Of course, you could call it minutia. Fair enough, but since when has life been about anything else? At the end of the day, does it really matter if you can talk about door knobs or not? Nope. Does everything hang on this one word? Tampoco. But you could likely make that same argument for most words in Spanish. True, there are few words you absolutely have to know to eke by. If you want to get to the point where you’re doing more than just scraping by (after all these years), though, if you want to thrive in Spanish, if you want to flourish and dazzle and twirl, you’d do well to (at least try to) learn all the words. Not from a dictionary, not from flashcards, not from some desperate systematic approach divorced from real life. Just figure out some way to embed yourself in the language. I don’t think you have to move to Latin America; I think you simply have to want to know. And don’t work backwards– don’t think of all the words in English you don’t know how to say in Spanish and hunker down in the dictionary for years. Just listen to what people are saying in Spanish. Read, listen, watch, devour. No one’s hiding the words from you–go out and find them. Be curious. Be nosy. Snoop, spy, eavesdrop, wiretap, pry, do whatever it takes.)
What about you? How did you do on the door knob test? What word would you choose if you were to make such a test? How do you learn vocabulary? If you’re a native Spanish speaker, anything to correct, clarify, comment on or concur with? How do you say door knob in your country? Do some of those words have different meanings where you live? Why don’t you devise a test for us? ¡Ponnos a prueba!