Back to School?

August 17, 2010

September is just around the corner and although most of us don’t have young children in the house, we inevitably think about the new school year starting up. This fall, some of you may in fact  be thinking of school, as in Spanish language school for yourselves.

I am a very verbal person and have always been so. I had some Spanish skills when I came to live in Merida because I’d lived previously in Peru. When I first attempted to learn Spanish in that Andean country, I used to say that I felt like I was fresh off the farm and spoke with the awkwardness of someone much less sophisticated than I believed I was. In reality, I was very green in every way and my lack of proficiency with words was the least of my issues.

 Nonetheless, it was awfully frustrating not to be able to understand much of the conversation going on around me and to be incapable of saying all I wanted to say. My mantra was “Mas despacio, por favor!” – Please speak more slowly!  As well, I made really abominable mistakes. The verb conjugations and tenses were absolutely incomprehensible at first, so I decided not to bother with them. I needed to communicate my needs right away – not six months later. Soon enough, even though my sentences were very grammatically incorrect I could hold semi-understandable conversations. My statements went sort of like this:

  • “Tomorrow, I to want you to take I the market; we to buy groceries.” 
  • “You to have baby pretty, big eyes and hair curly much he to have.”
  • “I to like to dance you with but I no to know to dance.”

 Yes it was pretty Neanderthal, but I was persistent, I was observant, and I listened. Soon I was hearing and understanding the correct usage and I improved a bit each day.

 If you are to become a part of this community, it is necessary to learn enough Spanish to carry on polite conversation. You must be able to, at a minimum:

  • Use salutations
  • Enquire about your neighbors’ health, family, and well-being
  • Know the numbers, days of the week and the months of the year
  • Understand familial and professional titles
  • Name the parts of the body and everyday places you go to
  • Use general nouns and pronouns
  • Use basic verbs
  • Ditto with standard phrases
  • Acquire a working vocabulary.

 Six weeks of consistent effort should get you to this point. Mexicans are very flattered when a newcomer takes the trouble to learn Spanish. They will notice your improvement and when they correct you, it will be from kindness. They are most forgiving of mistakes. And if they laugh, keep in mind that what you said was probably pretty funny. Try to figure out what it was, and you’ll chuckle too!

A man I know tells the greatest story about another English-speaking resident … This fellow went to the market to buy a pound of beef liver; he wanted the slices to be very thin. The butcher gave him a quizzical look and proceeded to cut the liver, very slowly and deliberately – in rather thick slabs. The gentleman got really excited and said in Spanish, “No, no, mas despacio!” The butcher looked at him and resumed cutting the same thickness but still more slowly and more carefully. “No, no – mas despacio!” At this point, the butcher gave up and seeing my bilingual friend several stalls over, he asked him to help. As you can imagine, the customer had mixed up his Spanish vocabulary. Instead of asking the butcher to cut the liver in thin slices, he was asking for it to be cut slowly; it’s easy to confuse the words: delgado – thin, and despacio – slow! Once the language was straightened out, he quickly got his thinly-sliced liver.

 So the big question is… how does a person go about learning Spanish, especially “after a certain age?”

 To start with, I recommend six weeks of classes:

  • 2 – 3 hours a session
  • 2 – 3 times a week
  • In a class situation where everyone is a beginner.
  • Or with a good tutor
  • The days when you don’t have class, you need to review your material and practice

 Once you have mastered the basics, you can immerse yourself in Merida’s Spanish-speaking community. Everything you do and everywhere you go will present opportunities to learn more. It can become tiring – exhausting in fact! When this happens, take a break but get back out there as soon as you can.

  • Listening to music in Spanish
  • Watching the local TV stations
  • Reading the newspapers (Use your dictionary to look up words you don’t understand. )
  • These are all good exercises for improving your Spanish.

 Above all, don’t be shy – speak up! Remember too, you’re not the only one who makes mistakes that are puzzling to you and uproariously funny to others; Spanish speakers commit plenty of errors in English…

 Another benefit of language learning is what it does for your brain. Countless studies show that people who learn a new skill later in life are better equipped to deal with aging.  We never get to the point where there’s nothing to improve upon. But, with consistent effort, you will be surprised how quickly Spanish becomes tu amigo – your friend…          

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