Adventures in language-learning
You may think that since I wrote a book on Spanish tools and speak it well enough to have a few Mexican friends, my days are seamlessly spent moving from one conversation to another. Ja-ja (ha-ha).
Although my Skype language practice partners in Spain compliment me on my usage and vocabulary, huge swaths of conversation pass between my Mexican girlfriends and me where I don’t have a clue what they’re talking about.
Mexicans, especially the women, talk fast. They emote. It’s a lot to take in at once - the words, the emotion, all while trying to determine what they need and expect from you. Throw translation into the mix and you’re in for an evening of adventure, all without even leaving your living room.
You can count on your Spanish to contribute at least one hilarious moment. Phone conversations provide great opportunities too.
Like the time I casually mentioned to a friend on the phone that I didn’t call her to cancel a proposed meeting between us and an expat friend whom I wanted her to meet because he had died. I followed this with profuse apologies for forgetting to tell her sooner, that it had just slipped my mind.
“Se murió!?” (“He died?!) asked my understandably horrified friend. Yes, I said. It was terrible. He had really swollen up in the hospital during the ordeal too, I elaborated.
The verb “morder” in Spanish is “to bite.” In my efforts to tell my friend that a bee had bitten Michael and that he’d had an allergic reaction (insects biting is “picar,” instead of “morder” in Spanish I would come to find), the unanticipated “le mordió” sounded over the phone like “se murió,” and yeah, Estella (I probably stifled a yawn at this point), it was terrible and I should have mentioned it sooner, “So what are you up to tonight?”
The fact that my friends continue to accept the smiling yet slightly incredulous expression on my face that I’ve learned can convey anything from surprise to compassion when I truly don’t know what’s going on and still remain my friends endears yet amazes me. I am beginning to understand how men must feel all the time.
Mexican women, thank god, are talkers. I like talkers. You know where they stand. Their occasional stream-of-conscientiousness dialogues always reveal golden nuggets about them without the patient digging and delicate inquiry required by the more private among us. I've never had an awkward silence when talking to a Mexican woman.
Even single phrases in a conversation can be watershed moments in your learning the language. How to use a reflexive verb was pegged in my memory forever when I tried to throw a pesky cricket out my 12th story condo window. Estella rushed toward me waving her arms and exclaiming, “No! Se va a morir!”
In moments like these, as a language student I find myself pondering the sentence structure as much as the content. Even as I held the singing insect up by its tiny legs before her protests, I was thinking, “But where did the “a” before “morir” come from? Does it always come after the present tense of “to go,” or does it have something to do with the verb “to die?”... I’m sorry, Estella...what were you saying?
Seriously. I don’t know why they put up with it.
Kerry Baker is a partner with Ventanas Mexico and author of the upcoming, "If Only I Had a Place," a complete guide to renting in Mexico for potential expats and the "Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online," a curation of the best free teaching tools on the web along with suggested lesson plans.
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