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Baxter, you know I don’t speak Spanish

September 18, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

I decide to sign up for a week of intensive Spanish while I’m here. There’s only so much practice you can get by being immersed in the culture when you don’t know how to say phrases like “I’m not sure that’s a good idea” or “I’m a little out of practice, but let’s try.” I roll out of bed on Monday and head toward a school I’ve heard about. I’ve got a good feeling about it, having learned about it from a brochure someone left on the floor of my dorm in my last hostel. More importantly, they have classes starting every Monday. Rather than sign up online, I figure I’ll just get up whenever I can on Monday and head over. Of course, “whenever I can” means getting to the school around 10am. Classes start at 9:30, of course.

The school is about three subway stops from my current hostel, and it takes me a little longer to find the place than I had planned. But when I do, they buzz me up into a small administrative office, where I managed to convey my request in passing Spanish to the girl behind the desk. A nice bald gentleman about my age sits me down and explains the various programs and prices. We agree on a price for a 20hr a week program, with the option to extend if I decide I like the program. He looks me over and ask me when I’d like to begin.

As soon as possible. Today, if I can. My ambition to magically pick up Spanish by hanging out in the streets and going to movies having been thwarted by the realization that this will take FOR FUCKING EVER.

I’m a little worried that my presumption that I could just show up unshwered, unshaved, in a wrinkled shirt, and expect to be enrolled immediately would be looked down upon. This is a neurosis instilled by my father at an early age.

“Vagabond Jr!” he would yell at the school bookstore. “What is your student ID number and where is your requisition form for seventh grade textbooks?”
“Dunno,” I’d shrug. “I was just going to ask for the seventh grade books.”
“Damnit, Vagabond Jr! You can’t go through life expecting things to work out! You have to be prepared!”
Vagabond Sr. was a military man, you see.
And had this been Germany, I probably would indeed have needed five forms filled out in triplicate and a letter of recommendation from Angela Merkel dated a year ago before I could matriculate. But this is Spain, which means they’re happy to take my credit card and a passport number I make up off the top of my head (Yeah, like you’ve got YOURS memorized), they give me a quick test and push me into a room with the placement coordinator.

He stares at my test with a mixture of bewilderment and awe. Having studied the language formally in middle school and high school for about four years, then forgotten most of what I’ve learned, then studied haphazardly for years, having a native speaker for a mother, means that I have a strong command of how to say things like “Get off my back, mother” and “For chrissake get your hands out of your pants, son.” I know about some of the more esoteric stuff, like the subjunctive mood and the pluperfect tense, but damned if I know how to conjugate a verb in the past tense, or when you’re supposed to use ‘estar’ instead of ‘ser’. I make basic mistakes in agreement between the gender of pronouns and nouns, but I can use the conditional tense. The coordinator debates whether to place me in Superior, Intermediate, or For Fuck’s Sake Learn the Difference Between Por and Para, You Spanish Noob. He’s also mystified by my accent, which is a combination of gringo, Cuban, Mexican, and the nationality of every Spanish teacher I had in school. I probably come off sounding like the equivalent of Fez’s generically foreign accent on “That Seventies Show,” or Madonna’s mix of faux-Brit/Detroit speak. I contemplate adopting an Irish accent, just to make it easier for folks.

“Oh, he must be Irish,” they’d say. “No wonder his Spanish is terrible, and he drinks so much.” But frankly, I’ve been pulling the whole “Fake Irish Guy” thing for the last three countries, and I’m a little tired of it. Although it would be fun to try an Austrian accent (try to imagine Arnold Schwarznegger singing “La Bamba” or “Guantanamera” to get an idea of how tempting this is), it’s not an accent I can do consistently at a normal decibel level.

He finally decides to put me in the final week of a class just finish up the Beginner level, A2, in the argot of the EU’s language institutes, just on the cusp of the Intermediate level B1. I’m immediately thankful of the coordinator’s instinct to have me do some remedial work, for although I can understand everyone pretty well, I struggle to stutter out phrases akin to “I…question would have…bathrooms where (on a temporary basis) is?” During a class debate on whether Kennedy had the FBI kill Marilyn Monroe, my English brain thinks up the phrase “That’s stupid, Hoover would have loved to have embarassed Kennedy” while my Spanish brain laughs hystrically at the notion that it could even vaguely express the idea.

The class itself is an interesting mix of personalities. Most of the students are young, some haven’t started college yet. There are few Americans at the school, though several Brazilians, lots of Easter Europeans and Chinese, and a few French. After a few weeks, an older French gentleman joins us, the only student older than myself. I have a hard time understanding different accents, and on top of a thick Gallic back-of-the-throat brogue so thick it sounds like he’s operating a chainsaw, Jean-Michel has a severe, face-contorting stutter. It takes him about five minutes to say the word ‘hermano’ and when he does get it out, I can’t distinguish it from ‘Arghhmaneax,’ which is not a word in any language, but should be. Still, Jean-Michel knows more obscure history than I do, so I immediately like him.

The Chinese all study dutifully and religiously, and almost to a person refuse to speak in class. The Eastern Europeans all speak nine languages, all of them better than I can speak Spanish, which is frustrating. The Eastern Europeans are also all girls, and all attractive which is 1) nice but 2) weird. After a week or two, no one is really sure if the Brazilian girl is still actually attending class or not. She tends to show up half way through, hung over, and falls asleep on her laptop, then wakes up and speaks a language that I’m pretty sure is Portuguese in response to direct questions, but which we can all pretty much understand. Apparently, this is not uncommon behavior for the Brazilian kids.

Our long-suffering teachers, both women my age, roll their eyes at our difficulties with vocabulary and pronouncing verb endings correctly. Weirdly, given out divergent backgrounds, whenever one of us doesn’t know a word in Spanish, we immediately throw the English word out. Even the French students. English really is impossible to escape.

I’d like to end this post on a note about triumphing over the Spanish language after weeks of hard work, but the reality is that, no, I’m nowhere near fluent, although I can successfully ask for peanut butter in a grocery store and then talk about how uncommon it is in Spain, give a halting lecture on the Bronze Age, and give passable directions to passers-by.

Let me end instead by saying this: Arnold Schwarzegger sent his kid to this school, and he was kicked out after two days for being an excessive jackass. Given the heroic patience the teachers have here, I can only imagine Terminator Jr. must have been either fondling himself in class in order to get kicked out that quickly.

That doesn’t tie in to the rest of the post, but I just learned it today, and I think it’s funny.

Also, here’s a ridiculous song from the 80s I love. If you want to imagine Schwarznegger singing it, be my guest.

  1. Juan
    September 18, 2009 at 11:43 pm

    I take comfort in the fact that they aren’t the original singers/creators of that classic song. Gods, they were such a tragedy.

    As always, I look forward to the next installment. 😉

  2. November 25, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    Garibaldi once inspired my life. But I comment on this post because I love challenges. The title reminded me that I don’t know how to speak French, so I did study the language and master it and converse with him, my uncle, and he was so happy, and he treat me different after that, he treated me good.

    After French, I learned Spanish, and I keep on learning new languages and skills. Thank you to the wonderful resources that we have online.

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