Confessions of a Spanish Student (Part 1 & 2)

Editors’ note: This article (Atención San Miguel, June 3 & 10) is one of my personal favorites of 2011. The author’s name was withheld, upon request, in the interest of protecting the guilty from the merciless jibing of friends and acquaintances.

Before anonymously offering advice to others on how best to master Spanish, I feel some obligation to provide my credentials. You may be surprised to learn that the extraordinary insights and tools that I will shortly offer are not the result of my fortuitously being born into a bicultural family. Alas neither my father nor mother ever spoke a word of Spanish beyond a surprising fluency with the word “margarita.” Nor do I have academic degrees in Spanish from prestigious universities nor years of experience teaching. Furthermore, I can’t fall back on dusty memories of high school Spanish nor on a junior year abroad in Barcelona where I tweaked my come-on lines to senoritas.

In actual fact I never had the slightest exposure to the tongue until I reached my mid-fifties and I was almost sixty before I seriously undertook to become fluent. Yet today, a mere seven years later, I am a combat veteran of fourteen different Spanish programs (Warren Hardy, Academia, Instituto Allende, Habla Hispana and Centro Bilingüe, among the most notable). And now, based on my personal experience, I am confident that I can provide eager students with a set of hitherto unrevealed insights into learning this wonderful language.

1. Formula #1

As you undertake learning Spanish, it is important to set appropriate goals. With this in mind, I will reveal an astounding mathematical truth. Your chances of becoming fully fluent in Spanish—assuming moderate intelligence and applied diligence-can be calculated in a simple formula: (F)%= 100-2A. The percentage chance that you will ever become completely fluent is symbolized by “(F)%”; while “A” represents your age. So, for example, if you begin study at the age of 8, then 100-2(8)= 84%. By inserting your age into this calculation, you can determine with near certainty your prospects for success in this undertaking. Remember; the formula applies irrespective of native talent and effort.

2. Formula #2

Warren Hardy stumbled upon this formula as a product of his years of devoted teaching experience. It also can be derived mathematically from Formula #1, although some of the steps require an acquaintance with five dimensional calculus. The formula itself, however, is the height of elegance: R=A. Again, “A” equals age and here “R” is the number of times an individual word must be repeated before it is permanently memorized. For example, after you explain the meaning of “ademas” to a two-year-old a mere two times, the word will forever be indelibly etched into the toddler’s mind. If you take your present age and employ it in the formula, you will have an understanding of the memorization efforts that await you.

3. Do the Math

From time to time I used to feel faintly inadequate in my Spanish skills when a precocious four-year-old Mexican girl could talk circles around me. Then I made some calculations. During her relatively short life, she had already listened to spoken Spanish for 12 hours a day for nearly 1500 days. That meant that the little urchin had already accumulated immersion in the language equal to my going to class three hours per day, three days a week for sixty continuous years. The lesson, my friends, is to expand your exposure to the language as much as possible. It matters not whether you understand what they are saying; listen to the TV, the radio, the voluble crazy lady on the bench in the Jardin. Expose yourself to several hours of Spanish a day to supplement whatever formal study you may be doing and in a remarkably few years, you will be speaking like a four-year-old.

4. The Goal Is Communication

I harbor an intellectual fascination with complex rules and organization. The structure of Spanish grammar can be a delight with its precise word order and conjugations. But if my toilet is leaking and I need a bowl gasket right now, my success in getting one at the ferreteria is not going to hinge on my correct use of the pluscuamperfecto de subjunctivo. I shamelessly stoop to sign language. It helps to have a dopey grin on your face, but Mexicans — unlike Parisian waiters — love playing charades and both parties get immense satisfaction when the counter guy pulls out exactly what I need. In fact, I suspect that Mexicans so much enjoy my performances that there have been times when the counter guy could have spoken perfect English but reveled in watching me act out an overflowing toilet. Similarly I feel no embarrassment in pitifully repeating an unconjugated infinitive until my meaning becomes clear. Speaking Spanish is just a means; communication is the goal.

5. Learn Your Lines

The vast majority of human interactions are set pieces; very predictable and standardized exchanges. When the waiter first comes to the table in a restaurant, he could speak Serbian but I know he is going to welcome me and ask me if I want something to drink. I don’t need to be able to conjugate “gustar” in five persons and 11 tenses to tell him “me gustaria una cerveza”; one standard line works every time. I have a small collection of such scripts that serve, with little variation, for an enormous chunk of everyday encounters.

6. I Will Always Sound Like An Idiot.

This used to bother me, but I have gotten over it. For years in the US, we had a Guatemalan gardener; a wonderful man, who despite having both a green thumb and a green card as well as many years in the country, had not completely mastered the King’s English. A typical exchange might start, “Mister Bob, we don’t got no fertilizer”. Today I would be proud to speak Spanish as well as Luis speaks English. He fully understands it and has a functional, if sometimes inelegant, mastery. I hope to achieve as much with Spanish.

7. Be Obsequious.

I take it as a given that I always will sound like a moron to any Mexican I speak to. So I try very hard to sound like a polite moron. Mexicans greatly appreciate and deserve kindness from foreigners, and Spanish allows you to use very courteous and deferential forms of speech. So I figure it never hurts to go to even ridiculous lengths to use the most polite language I can muster. My wife addresses every Mexican lady over 40 as doña; they absolutely lap it up. If I ask for something, I use “podria” for “would it be possible for you to”, instead of the brusque sounding command: “bring me”.

8. Icantquitemakeoutwhattheyaresaying.

Spanish schools like to teach grammar and as I bumped my way through classes, they inevitably “promoted” me to the next level where I was subjected to a yet more obscure tense. At the point where I had learned a full fourteen different tenses, I realized that I still couldn’t understand what the fruit lady was saying to me. I could follow the carefully modulated, slow, steady Spanish enunciated by my teachers, but the fruit lady was speaking something else and it wasn’t Nahuatl; it was real Spanish. Not every Mexican speaks like James Earl Jones. It was then that I discovered “repeated listening”; this was a breakthough technique for me. It allowed me to tune my ear and train my mind to go as fast as the speaker. My problem was that everyday Spanish sounded like a word-meld, everything blurred together into an indistinct string of sounds with an occasional word implanted in the mess. Repeated listening proved the key to teasing it out. To do it, you find some short pieces of spoken Spanish—10 minutes or less—and you start by listening to one of them on your computer or CD player, then you listen to the same one again, and again, and again, and again, and again. Every pass through, more distinct words will emerge from the blur. You have to stick with it until you clearly understand every single word. To keep yourself from going screaming crazy with boredom, it helps to listen to something that interests you. A couple of things you might explore: Destinos is a justifiably famous 52 episode telenovela created for Spanish students. It has a hokey but oddly compelling plot and can be streamed for free on the Internet. Notes in Spanish and Cody’s Cuentas are podcasts. Imagen Radio is online and has an inventory of intelligent programs and interviews. BBC Mundo has a changing set of short news pieces. No doubt there are many others. I have started buying Mexican DVDs of movies I have already seen, so I can follow the plots without much effort and focus on the dialog, but since they are often dubbed, the lip movements and the Spanish words don’t line up and they can be challenging for me, but I figure you can never see “Caddyshack” too many time.

9. Too Many Syllables

Lamentablemente, Spanish not only pronounces vowels in its specific—but faithfully consistent—ways, it also crams a surprising number of syllables into a single word. Just when you think you have wrapped your tongue around a word, you try to say it and it unravels somewhere between the third and fifth syllable. Adverbs are particularly nasty concoctions whose difficulty often far exceeds their utility. My initial strategy for coping with this problem was to mumble through as fast as possible. I figured the mumble would mask any major mispronounication and the momentum would carry me flying over the rough spots. That approach, however strategic and well-conceived it may have been, has not proven the triumphant success that I had hoped. By careful observation I discovered that the normal reaction of Mexican listeners was a tightly repressed giggle. My latest plan is to mimic Demosthenes. You may recall that this famous Greek orator honed his chops by addressing the roaring surf with a mouth full of stones. I believe the rocks are optional, but I have taken to reading passages of Spanish text aloud to my patient dog. She has proven a sympathetic audience and has developed a particular fondness for Octavio Paz.

10. A Few Helpful Multilingual Phrases.

My intention in offering these insights is not to discourage anyone from pursuing a fluency in Spanish; it is a wonderful journey regardless of how close to the finish line we may get. But there are the occasional dark days of uncertainty where you keep looking at your watch and agonizing over whether it is still “buenas dias” or has passed into “buenas tardes”. At such times, it may be useful to divert the focus by popping out with a sparkling multilingual dictum. It is just the thing to subtly imply that Spanish is just one of the many languages that you dally with and to allay your listeners’ doubt in your intelligence.

The author of this article remains anonymous in the interest of protecting the guilty from the merciless jibing of friends and acquaintances.


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