San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX, September 27, 2014: I’ve thought about it for a few days now, and I’m not sure there’s anything more humiliating than learning another language. After years of living life as a polished, articulate speaker, one able to even orate in front of large groups with apparent casualness (and CLEARLY plenty of humility), one is suddenly reduced to two- and three-word sentences, often containing incorrect verb conjugations and improper pronunciation. It’s like being a baby all over again, only instead of adorable and charming you are deemed pathetic and annoying.
When we moved here in July I had what I thought was a passing comprehension of Spanish. I’m well past Menu-Reading 101, and have for years been quite accomplished at getting another margarita or beer or asking where the bathroom is. Although I can ask where something is located, I often have no idea what the person answers back, so frequently getting somewhere on foot involves asking for directions multiple times. The man or woman who invented Google Maps deserves something akin to the Nobel prize, because more than the mapping of the double helix or peace in South Africa it has changed my life for the better.
This level of Spanish will serve you well if you never plan to venture outside of Cancun. Everyone in Cancun speaks English, except maybe for the maid who cleans your hotel room, and that’s probably true of Miami or New York also. Outside the coastal resort areas of Mexico, or certainly in Central or South America or Spain, it’s nice to know more. And definitely, if you’re going to be living somewhere for a while, like us, it just seems appropriate. Respectful, if you will. Even though I can make myself understood in most situations, and if I couldn’t I know many fluent speakers of both languages I could call on for help, I want to speak more Spanish.
One of my reasons for wanting to master Spanish is that I’ve never seen so much preventable infectious disease as I see at the shelter here, where I volunteer one day a week. I want to be able to walk up to someone and say, Gosh, your tiny daughter and her tiny Chihuahua puppy are adorable, stumbling down the sidewalk together, but did you know that there’s basically a carpet of parvo virus all over Mexico? Haven’t heard of parvo, you say? It’s like canine Ebola, that’s what it’s like. And I’d rather not see your one pound dog dying an agonizing death next week when I go into the clinic.
But I don’t want to be so fluent that I fall victim to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are thick on the ground here. Someone has scribbled something in chalk on our front door, and I believe it’s a secret code they share which means something like, don’t bother, heathen gringos live here, I’ve heard their devil music as well as the lascivious clink of tequila bottles in their trash and you’ll never communicate with them anyways. So right now they don’t knock on our door, but if our Spanish gets too good, that could change.
Sometimes I think I should just get a Mexican friend to write up a little testimonial about parvo for me, and have cards printed that I could hand out. Then I realize that makes me look an awful lot like a Jehovah’s Witness.
Because lots of people come to San Miguel to stay for a while, there are several Spanish language schools here. We looked into classes at a couple of them, but with Wiley continuing to work every day it quickly proved difficult to find something that we were sure we could commit to every week. Someone mentioned having a Spanish tutor, and this seemed like a fantastic idea. Our friend Erica accepted the challenge one day in a casual conversation, and it’s likely that her alcohol consumption has increased since then, with the shear weight of the task of trying to teach me her second language.
Erica moved to Mexico after getting a degree in Spanish from the University of Texas (Sorry Longhorns, I’ll never be able to call your school “UT”.) and promptly fell in love with and married the son of the mayor of the small town to which she moved. She’s been here nearly fifteen years, and to my ears her Spanish sounds completely fluent and colloquial. She is a fantastic teacher, combining instruction in the necessary rules of construction and grammar with the important slang and curse words, such as the very helpful “chingona” (a female badass), and the most useful forms of the f-word.
Maybe you know this about Spanish, but nouns have gender. This includes very obviously non-male-or-female items, such as cups (“tazas”, feminine) and telephones (“telefonos”, masculine). So right off the bat you can make yourself sound very stupid to a native Spanish speaker by asking for “el taza”, since “el” is the masculine form of the article “the”, but as you can imagine it’s pretty challenging to keep the gender straight on a bunch of stuff that doesn’t look sexy, or sexual. After a while you start thinking you’ve got it figured out, and things start making sense, and then someone breaks it to you that the word for dress (“vestido”) ends in an “o”, which should make it a masculine noun, but it doesn’t, and you really just want to go sit on the floor in a corner, grasp your knees, and rock gently back and forth.
My current nemesis seems to be sentence construction. In our lessons Erica will ask us to make up a sentence describing the other person, and I will be struck mute by this challenge. In English, you might say, “he said”. In Spanish, this gets combined into one word. You use the appropriate form of the verb to indicate who the subject is, and it becomes only, “habla”. In addition, in most cases the adjectives come AFTER the nouns, so there is no more “pretty woman”, it’s “mujer bonita” (And please note that “bonita” ends in an “a”, because if you were talking about a really good-looking dog, for example, it would be “perro bonito”, because dogs are all masculine, even if they’re not. People say this to us on our walks, which makes me laugh, since my dogs are far from beautiful. Perhaps “perros chingonos” is more appropriate.). Overall, I think it’s likely to be a more straightforward way of speaking, but you can see how again you can make yourself sound incredibly stupid and unintelligible to a native speaker.
Luckily, the locals around here are incredibly tolerant of the gringos and their attempts to speak what was once a beautiful language. Unlike the French, especially those in Paris. I remember getting off a plane, after basically being awake all night in the comfort of a coach-class airline seat, only to be made to cry by the clerk at the front desk of a hotel, who responded to my meager attempt at French by shouting, in perfect English: “WHAT IS IT YOU ARE TRYING TO SAY???”. I’m guessing she had just been turned down (again!) for the job as the face of Chanel or Yves St. Laurent, because not only are all Parisian women mean they are also beautiful and wafer-thin, so perhaps it wasn’t about me. But the reaction of the person on the receiving end of your efforts goes a long way towards determining how long you will keep up with your struggle to speak their language. And as many of you no doubt know, you can study a language in a book for years, but until you live amongst those who speak it, you will never truly learn it.
And as my man Shakespeare said, there’s the rub. Living here we hang out mostly with native English speakers. Wiley IV has lots of Mexican kids in his class at school, and gets instructed half of the day in Spanish, so he’s making real progress. Me, I hang out with the other moms and dads, and even though lots of them speak Spanish, it would be absurd for us to all stand around speaking it, given the differing levels of skill. So I have to make an effort to practice, and hopefully I will start to get the hang of things. And one day I will be a chingona de Espanol.