Reading in Spanish

My track record with reading in Spanish has always been up and down. I tend to get very sidetracked by every word that I don’t understand, every idiom I can’t quite parse. But looking up twenty words per page is practically a death knell to reading comprehension if you’re reading novels. You have to go and keep going, and get the gist of what you can. Also frustrating is the sheer slowness of reading in another language. Compared to my usual reading speed, it’s glacial, and it can be disheartening.

One thing I’ve found very helpful is to read books I’ve already read. As far as novels go, I’ve made a few attempts at The Sorcerer’s Stone and City of the Beasts in Spanish, only to inevitably stop reading every day because I’m going at such a slow pace. But this year I’m really trying not to fall into that trap. I’m reading Bless Me, Ultima in Spanish, which is both a book I have read previously and a rather more advanced novel than the last two. Surprisingly, it’s the best try I’ve had yet. I was reading a chapter a day before I got off track, but I’m determined to finish it by the end of July.

When I actually get through a chapter and discover I understand what occurred in it, if not every single word, it’s an amazing feeling. One that I want to keep pursuing. After I finish Bless Me, Ultima, I’ll go back to City of the Beasts.


I picked this book up from a street vendor in Quito–it’s not a translation of an English novel, so it should be both a challenge and a really valuable read.

If things go according to plan, this should be my last scheduled blog post, so look forward to a more contemporary post next week!

This has been a scheduled post, as I am currently without reliable WiFi in the Ecuadorian Amazon! Returning in a month! 


Spanish Learning Tactics

So in the two weeks leading up to my trip to Ecuador I started cramming Spanish hardcore, and I thought I’d share my methods. This isn’t a strictly writing-related post, but, hey, language is part of writing!

  1. Cut out English! I found some good advice online that to better memorize words and concepts, cut English out altogether so you aren’t translating, but rather thinking in your target language. Instead, use pictures, short phrases, or sentences with the word removed.
  2. Reading! I’ve been making my way through Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya in Spanish. It’s slow but not glacial, and is actually making me feel a lot more confident in my reading comprehension skills.
  3. Podcasts! I listen to Notes in Spanish Gold and Spanish Obsessed Advanced in the mornings.
  4. Strategic vocabulary! I’ve been slowly memorizing lists of the 1,000 most common Spanish words, as well as 650 or so necessary vocabulary words.
  5. Speak! This one is the hardest for me. I’m so self-conscious about my speaking abilities. But it has to be done.

These were my methods until I got to Ecuador. My methods are now: navigate Ecuador. Spanish is mandatory. Hopefully by the time I return, I will be speaking much more fluently!

This has been a scheduled post, as I am currently without reliable WiFi in the Ecuadorian Amazon! Returning in a month! 

Field Notes

In my last post about ethnographic writing I mentioned field notes, so I thought I’d devote a post to my field note methodology and how it’s changing.

What are field notes? Basically, any notes you take during your research in the field. There are at least two forms. Jots are taken on the go, as things occur, during any spare second you have to write down notes about what’s going on. These are shorthand and very messy. Later they are transcribed into a field journal, which expands up on your jots, describing the whole day and events that happened in excruciating, agonizing detail.

Are field notes fun? No.

Are field notes necessary? Yes.

Last year writing in my field journal was the bane of my life. This year I’m trying to be more free with it. I’m trying to make it something I look forward to doing. I’ve decided to angle them towards a more scrapbook format, pasting things in drawing, etc. With any luck it should stop being miserable drudgery and start being kind of fun.

But arduous as they are, field journals are the backbone of ethnographic writing. And detail is the backbone of any kind of writing, no matter if those nuances make it in to the draft or not–what matters is that you know them. These bits of information are there, backing your writing up, whatever form it is.

Writing in a notebook is a good exercise even if you’re not an anthropologist in the field. Jotting down things that stand out to you, interesting phrases and words, names, or whatever, can be a really good resource and source of inspiration. I’ve found it helps to pick out a really cool journal to do them in.

This has been a scheduled post, as I am currently without reliable WiFi in the Ecuadorian Amazon! Returning in a month! 


So I’m in the Upper Amazon basin doing ethnography. But just what is ethnography? The study of insects? Close. Ethnography is both what anthropologists do and the writing they produce.

The thing that makes anthropology unique is method: while surveys, archival research, and interviews are still employed, participant observation is what anthropology is all about. In participant observation, one arrives at one’s field site and proceeds to live there for extended amounts of time (months to years, often returning) to come to know something as close to peoples’ personal experiences as possible. Languages are learned, detailed notes are taken, and relationships are forged. Participant observation has two parts, as you cold probably assume: you participate in everyday life, but you are also observing and learning rather than passively slipping into a new life rhythm. Notes and notes and notes are taken.

So what kind of writing comes out of this? Ethnography is, on the whole, thick, detailed, and precise. Details are backed up from field notes (which are copious) documents, recordings, videos. To pick up a well-written ethnography is to be immersed in a rich new setting, while also being slipped critical information through the narrative which the author will call your attention to later.

Of course, there is not just one way to write ethnography. It needn’t even be written. One of the last courses I took was titled “Experimental Ethnography,” in which we explored currents of experimentation and creativity within ethnographic writers.

Anthropologists often turn out to be good fiction writers, and vice versa, because of ethnography: both the writing and the method. In my opinion, it is not only practice at representing people in the written word, but the process of coming to know people so closely in the first place, that makes this transition smooth.

This has been a scheduled post, as I am currently without reliable WiFi in the Ecuadorian Amazon! Returning in a month!