Thursday, January 24, 2013

My Quest for a Second Soul

To have another language is to possess a second soul
-- Charlamagne

I’m trying to learn Spanish. Let me rephrase that: I’m learning Spanish. I’m banishing negative self talk about it like, “I’m way too old to learn a whole new language,” and (imagine a whiny voice) “This is hard.”

I do at least have a bit of leg up on people from some other parts of the States and Canada who come to Mexico since I lived for over 30 years in Southern California. It was, of course, part of Mexico up until 1849 and still remains a largely Hispanic city. You pick up a certain amount of Spanish by osmosis. I already knew, for example, that Hermosa Beach translated to beautiful beach; that Puente was bridge; and that you didn't need to say La Brea tar pit because La Brea meant tar pit. I could correctly pronounce Sepulveda, La Cienaga, and Cahuenga boulevards. And in general I developed an ear for what Mexican Spanish should sound like.

Olvera Street in down town LA: really

When I made the decision to move to Mexico I frantically started listening to Spanish language tapes in my car. On arriving here, I noticed people looking at me funny when I attempted to speak and discovered that I had been studying Spanish Spanish and not Latin American Spanish. They’re the same language of course, but with subtle differences in usage. My Pimsleur tape instructed me to say, “Encantada” on meeting someone. Mexicans are much too polite to snicker but I’m sure they were amused inside when I said the flowery, “enchanted.” I learned quickly that here people say, “Mucho Gusto.”

The year I lived in San Miguel de Allende it was all too easy to be lazy about it because there is such a huge ex-pat population and so many of the Mexicans that work in the largely tourist industries speak English. You could go days without hearing anything but English spoken. Still, I bought and started plowing through Rosetta Stone Spanish, which many people swear by. I find it a bit tedious, but perhaps because I already spend so much time at my computer that another hour a day is a chore. I do, though, like a podcast from, of all places, Scotland called “Coffee Break Spanish.” They’re 15-minute conversation sessions on specific topics and I’ve learned a lot by listening while making my dinner or doing other chores.

When I moved to Mineral de Pozos, the situation became more urgent. The foreign population is much smaller and far fewer of the locals speak any English.

Pozos: not a lot of English spoken here

I’ve discovered that learning functionally is a good method for me. If I need to say something, I use a translation program that lets me see and hear what to say. Then once I’ve used it, it tends to stick. The flaw with this method is that then people respond and I have no idea what they are saying! My Mexican friend Rosa wants to learn English so we spend an hour every week helping each other. I also watch movies with Spanish sub-titles and usually pick up a word or two each time.

Rosa and I: able to communicate against the odds

In the last year and half, I think my Spanish has improved exponentially but I have problems conversing because I’m still translating everything in my head. By the time I’ve figured out what to say, everyone else has moved on. I also understand a lot more than I can speak.

This year my resolution was to get fluent. In talking to friends, I discovered that several others in our little town had made the same determination. So we got together and hired a Spanish teacher from San Luis de la Paz to come to Pozos twice a week. The lovely and patient Lourdes is taking us rapidly to the next step. But, it seems, there’s no getting around the issue of learning some things by rote: like verb endings. It brings up memories of sitting in a hot African classroom chanting French and Latin conjugations.

I was struggling yesterday to memorize the Spanish verb ser “to be” (not to be confused with estar, the other Spanish verb “to be”), when out of a brain cell lingering from around 1965, up bubbled the Latin conjugation for “to be” in all its tenses! Spanish is not identical to Latin, but close enough that it was like a light shining on it and I suddenly got it. Right after that, I also called up the Latin conjugation of “to love.” Again, the verb endings were so close that it became a tremendous shortcut for me. There was also something about the memory of the rhythm of chanting them that helped me chant the Spanish verbs.

And hey, I am living in Latin America.

So here’s a shout out to Miss Linder, who as a young women in the 1960s valiantly drilled Latin verbs into the heads of a bunch of fidgety teenagers at Umtali Girls High, most of whom couldn’t really figure why we needed to learn a has-been language. Miss Linder is advanced in age and still living in Umtali (now renamed Mutare) so she might like to know:  it came in handy after all! 

Somebody posted this picture to my old high school facebook page, 
showing Miss Linder back row left: still teaching long after I had gone.

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