This post is one of a six-part series on our recent family trip to Perú. The dentist will be visited. Jorge el Curioso will be watched. Paracas will be braved. Bread will be eaten. Spanish will be spoken. Mmm, Spanish will be spoken badly. And more bread will be eaten.
Nada. Agua. Hola. Por Favor. Gracias. Gata.
That was pretty much the extent of my Spanish when I met Roberto’s mom four years ago. I had taken French in high school and college, and what I knew of Spanish came from Sesame Street.
Roberto and I were in the Miami Airport as we said good-bye to his mom before her return flight to Perú. Is it one or two kisses Peruvians do when they greet each other? I found myself thinking. I confidently went in for the first kiss, then hesitated, like a foolish fool, and ended with a second kiss planted awkwardly close to his mother’s lips. Next, I bungled my way through “Mucho gusto!” and gave her a card in which I had relied heavily upon Google Translate to convey just how much it meant to meet her. The card was supposed to show that, despite my limited language abilities, I was not dumb. I was oh, so funny and clever! I knew she loved George Clooney, so I even translated that, writing I hoped one day Jorge Cloonio would fit into a three-ounce bottle, and TSA Inspectors would let her take him home. I waited for her to get to the George Clooney bit and start cracking up. She read it, her smile disappeared and a look of confusion—maybe a bit of terror, too?—spread across her face.
I needed to learn Spanish, I thought. Pretty much, um, ahora (now). O ayer (or yesterday).
Of course, like many things that rapidly rise to the top of the To-Do list when you are staring in the face of the difficult consequences of not having done those things, learning Spanish seemed less important a few days later. After all, Roberto spoke English. Additionally, the only person in my life I absolutely had to speak Spanish to was safely in her home in Perú, and I didn’t know when I’d see her again. Still, to show I was trying, or at least open to absorbing, I said little ornamental things to Roberto, and he’d answer me in English. “Oh, that’s cute!” he’d say. “It’s like you’re a little person!”
I finally got serious about learning Spanish when Roberto and I were going to Lima in 2013. Kid Number One was seven months old, and Roberto was dutifully speaking to him in Spanish. I was dutifully speaking to him in English. Kid Number One wasn’t saying anything, so there was no way to measure the bilingual magic, but at least I was picking up vocabulary about diapers (pañales), pacifiers (chupones), and pee (pichi). I was quite impressed with my trilingualism actually, but when Roberto’s mom visited again, I found myself desperate and resorting to hand gestures and French words that I’d placed an “o” at the end of. It was beyond entertaining for others, I’m sure, but it was frustrating for me, and I immediately enrolled in a Spanish One Continuing Education class at Santa Fe College.
For me, this class was the best thing I’ve done to learn Spanish because, and maybe this is more of an American style of learning a language thing, the teacher began with basic, basic letter pronunciation and grammar. I had tried just jumping in and speaking in the past, but without even the smallest of grammar foundation, I had nothing but random nouns strung together. I already knew some French and was an English teacher with a good understanding of the parts of speech, so this class was how I began to wrap my arms around the language.
We’re leaving for Lima, Perú in two days. I still speak like a caveman, but I’ve improved. Roberto watches A LOT of fútbol—La Liga and Copa América this past year, and I watch it with him like the turncoat I’ve become. He watches EL Chavo, too, which I still don’t fully understand the appeal of even after finding it on Netflix with English subtitles. I’ve watched telanovelas with Roberto’s mom. I’ve picked up a lot of child-specific language from Roberto talking to the kids, and Kid Number One and Two have developed an obsession with this 1980s Argentinian band called Soda Stereo. (We’ve gotten many cute gringo toddlers to join along in singing “Nada Personal.”) And recently I joined Duolingo. It’s a lot like Rosetta Stone but FREE! It’s been very helpful for the small language things, like which articles go with which nouns, por versus para, prepositions, etc.
We shall see how things go for me this trip! Do you have any language-learning tips you’ve gathered over the years?