I used to believe that I was one of those people who had a knack for learning languages. I must have picked up this idea from my mother when one day during my formative years, I overheard her saying “She’s good at languages”. Being the only child that I am, I assumed that “she” meant “me”. Whatever the case, when I first arrived in Mexico a little more than a year ago, I didn’t feel the need to study Spanish formally. I assumed that I would pick it up naturally and that before long I’d be, at the very least, able to converse with other adults.
My lack of language genius probably should have been obvious to me when, after three months in France working as an au pair, the oldest daughter, then only five years old, announced to her friend one day that “She can only say oui“. This time, I’m certain that the “she” referred to was in fact ” moi“. Sadly, this pronouncement was made after I had sat through six years of French classes through high school and college.
I should admit that while I hadn’t formally studied Spanish before arriving in Mexico, I had purchased a Spanish language CD. And for a few months before my move, I listened and repeated the various lessons for an hour or so each night. Unfortunately, the CD taught Spanish Spanish, not Mexican Spanish and so I learned verb forms that don’t exist here in Latin America. Not that it mattered too much. Most of the lessons were dedicated to perfecting following conversation and its variations. “Good morning. My name is Señor Ramirez. What is your name? It is nice to meet you, Señora Lopez. Where is the Hotel Colon?”
I had it down pat. I arrived in Mexico late one October evening and promptly greeted a surprised customs officer with a cheerful “Buenos Dias” before introducing myself as Senor Ramirez and asking him where I could find Hotel Colon. A good start, ¿ no?
During my first few months in Mexico, I worked at an organization where the majority of employees were Mexican and therefore spoke Spanish much better than I did. The good news was that my job responsibilities were in English, my office mate was a native English speaker and my boss was fluent in English. The bad news was that no one else in the building spoke English any better than I spoke Spanish. I was forced to rely on my uncanny ability to pretend that I understood what people were saying to me. The first few weeks on the job I replied to everything with a smile and si, no, or gracias. I attended meetings conducted entirely in Spanish and nodded thoughtfully when somewhen made what seemed to be an important point. I furiously doodled on my notepad as if taking copious notes. Surprisingly, my Spanish wasn’t improving. Mere exposure, I realized, wasn’t cutting it.
I quit my job and enrolled in Spanish classes at a nearby university. (This was unrelated to my inability to communicate with my co-workers. If I had been able to understand them any better, I would have quit much sooner. But that’s another story.) The day I registered at la universidad, I sat for a placement exam. Thanks to the Spanish Spanish CD and my staff meetings at the office, I recognized more than a few words on the test. I placed into level one. This is more impressive than it sounds. I could have been put in level zero. It exists. Clearly, my mother was right and that petite jeune fille didn’t know what she was talking about. I was good with languages, damnit.
I was the only person in my class. Blanca, my instructor was new to the school as well. In fact, this was the first course on any subject that she had ever taught. As such, she didn’t know that new rules of grammar warrant an explanation or that she could make up her own exercises and dialogues to complement the lessons in the book. After a couple of days of classes, I realized that I was essentially teaching myself.
I couldn’t understand a word that Blanca said to me in the three weeks I was under her instruction. This has little to do with the fact that my lessons were conducted entirely in Spanish and owes more to the fact that she didn’t open her mouth when she spoke. Now, I’ve never taught anyone to speak a foreign language, but I think if I had, I would have tried to annunciate my words in order to better aid my student with his or her pronunciation. Clearly Blanca had never been given this tip. Even native Spanish speakers would have had trouble deciphering what she was mumbling. To survive my tenure with her, I pretended that I was alone in the classroom and that she was the tape recorder telling me when to turn the page in my book. By the end of three weeks, I had finished all the lessons in level one and passed my final exam.
I was thrilled to discover on my first day of level two that I not only had a new and capable teacher, but that I also had four classmates. Our lessons consisted of actual conversations with each other about what we did everyday after class and on the weekends. We learned new rules of grammar and then applied those rules in fun little exercises that got us up and moving around. We gave oral presentations about our countries of origin. We asked questions, we learned new vocabulary words. We were assigned homework. Our instructor had a sense of humor and genuinely seemed to like teaching and to like us. This was more like it! I passed the final exam with flying colors and signed myself up for the next level.
There were just two of us this time around. A Swedish woman from my previous class and me. We continued to learn new verb tenses and practiced those tenses in conversation. Martha, our teacher, provoked us to discussion by sharing her conservative Catholic views on various topics: gay marriage, abortion, the war in Iraq. Every day, to the best of our ability, we would argue with her about drug addiction or homelessness. My classmate and I understood each other easily. Not only did we share political views, but we shared English as a common language. When we got stuck on a Spanish word, we put an English word (spoken in a Spanish accent) in its place. Martha didn’t know much English and so half the time had no idea what we were trying to say, but it didn’t matter. Someone else understood me. I could discuss eating disorders in Spanish! I was mastering the language! I would be fluent in no time!
Fast forward to level four. Granted I had taken a two month break from classes in order to get married back in the United States. And granted I didn’t speak a word of Spanish the entire time I was outside of Mexico, not even during the week I was in Costa Rica for my honeymoon. Still, I thought I would retain what I had learned from my previous classes. Not so. There were two other women in my class this time. They had been in Mexico for half the time I had, but the minute I heard them introduce themselves I knew that they were way ahead of me and that I had no business being in class with them. I should have paid attention to the feeling I had in my gut that said I was in way over my head. Instead, I silently cursed their fortune for rooming with Spanish speaking families while I had the bad luck of living with another American, my husband.
Our teacher, Guillermo, was big on grammar drills and defending the customs of his country. Each morning we conjugated our irregular verbs. That was fine except that the tenses that we were conjugating were ones I had never seen before. My classmates had not only learned them somewhere, they were able to conjugate them perfectly. I made up verb endings based on my classmates’ answers before me and in this way, I bluffed my way through the exercises. But I had absolutely no understanding of what I was saying. Was it “I had eaten” or “I have eaten”? Was it ” If I win the lottery, I will buy I car” or “If I won the lottery, I would buy a car”? Just as I started to have some comprehension, we moved on to a new tense. I hung on as best I could, excelling only when we read stories and had to answer questions about them orally. Thankfully, I was good at figuring things out in context.
The second half of class usually consisted of Guillermo’s daily defense of Mexico. He began by asking us to tell him something we noticed that was different about Mexico than the place we were from. When in an especially provocative mood, he pointedly asked us to name something that we didn’t like about Mexico. We were as tactful as possible, recognizing we were guests in his country, students in his classroom. No matter how innocuous the answer though,he jumped right in to set us straight on why that was the wrong response.
When the Japanese woman in my class shyly mentioned that the driving in Mexico City seemed dangerous to her, Guillermo was quick to mention that the accident rates here are actually lower than in Italy and Canada (Canada???). The reason that the driving seems so crazy, he explained, is because the roads aren’t straight, that the city wasn’t designed on a grid system. I will concede that the roads aren’t straight, but how does that explain all the drivers who ignore stoplights and turn left from the right lane?
I managed to pass my final exam in that class, though barely, and have decided to take a break from formal lessons for awhile. These days, I am teaching myself Spanish grammar from a verb tenses book I picked up during my last visit to the states, and reading comprehension at the gym.
Four or five days a week, I spend an hour reading and translating the subtitles on the muted television monitor that hovers above the treadmill. If there’s a vocabulary word I don’t know, I make a mental note and look it up in my Spanish-English dictionary when I get home. I’m able to test myself when the program is one I have seen before, in English, in the United States. It was at the gym where I first learned that Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez had called off their wedding.
I was beaming when I announced to my husband that I had been able to read every single word of the press release in Spanish. Who needs school?
Sally Davis Ellwein is a citizen of the U.S., living and writing in Mexico City, Mexico.