written by Linda Shaw
Was I really learning Spanish? Sometimes I was discouraged, sometimes I saw progress, but I was ever aware of the privilege of sitting afternoons in a beautiful garden under a prefect blue sky learning a beautiful language.
The day I asked to ride a cowboy was the day I knew I needed help. Traveling in Central America without Spanish-language skills gets a little stressful. I arrived in the region with a grounding in high school French, a smattering of university Italian grammar and a compact Spanish Phrase Finder, confidently planning to travel and pick up a little Spanish along the way.
Ordering breakfast seemed to go well enough in Nicaragua, until someone in San Juan del Sur pointed out that I had been ordering my Thursdays “over easy.” The words jueves and huevos sounding pretty much the same to my gringa ears, I remained smug in having mastered the expression for “over easy.” And though typically eggs did continue to arrive on my plate, I nonetheless felt a growing loss of confidence whenever they arrived scrambled.
My confidence continued to erode until the day it no longer existed in Costa Rica. While contemplating a wonderful horseback ride I’d taken along a white-sand Guanacaste beach, a bad feeling crept over me. I verified it in my dictionary. Yes, at the stable I had indeed asked for a caballero to ride for two hours. Then it made sense why all the stablemen had started to laugh and point at each other. Which gentleman did she fancy? they no doubt discussed. I felt a further humiliation recalling that after giving me a good look up and down, they had quickly saddled up a frisky caballo.
My Fodor’s guide, listing 25 language schools in Guatemala, assured me that this was the Spanish-language teaching capital of the world. Arriving in La Antigua, I started spending every afternoon testing the patience of my wonderful tutor, who would take my French-Italian hybrid imitation of Spanish to something… well, something closer to Spanish.
Learning a new language is neither for the timid nor the middle-aged. Many afternoons I thought that my brain was overheating and sending smoke out my ears. I created a daily ritual of generously offering to treat my tutor to coffee and cake as a device to buy an extra 10-minute break. Mentally exhausted most nights, I’d fall asleep just before 9, color-coded flash cards of irregular verbs dropping from my hands. Was I really learning Spanish? Sometimes I was discouraged, sometimes I saw progress, but I was ever aware of the privilege of sitting afternoons in a beautiful garden under a prefect blue sky learning a beautiful language.
We were interrupted one afternoon by a man who apologetically asked my tutor to find someone from the school office. We had just been reviewing verbs. No doubt conscious of interrupting my paid time, he pressed me to pronounce some verbs while she was gone, pointing at them on the white board. I confidently pronounced the word volver, meaning to return, confidently because we had just been working on its pronunciation. No! he said loudly and emphatically, you just said… something else I couldn’t catch and proceeded to pronounced it just as loudly and emphatically. From my angle with him standing and me sitting I had a good view of the roof of his mouth and most of his dental work. And from my angle I could clearly see the fuller formation of the vowel “o” then the tip of his tongue as it touched the back of his top teeth to form the final “r” sound. It was quite a graphic demonstration. I repeated the verb, with an awareness of what needed changing in my pronunciation. No! he repeated just as empathically and demonstrated again. At that point I resorted to my usual defense mode and giggled. I indulged him by trying again, all the while hoping for my real teacher to volver, more appreciative than ever of having a professional tutor and not someone off the street with little understanding of foreign-language teaching. My tutor and I continued with our afternoon session. At our break I was informed that the man was the university-level oral language examiner for the school. I left early that day just after coffee and cake.
Learning a new language is neither for the timid nor the middle-aged. Many afternoons I thought that my brain was overheating and sending smoke out my ears.