Flashback: My sister and I are sitting with our parents at a table in a restaurant in Mexico. The waiter comes up to take our order and even though he can tell that we are a table full of gringos, he asks, “Hablan Espanol?”
Our parents point to me and my sister and say, “They do.”
I glare at them and exhale heavily. I DO NOT speak Spanish. I never have and I still don’t. I’m not sure if I ever will. But the waiter has to see for himself. He says something that we only half comprehend. We try to construct a coherent sentence and fail. The waiter gives up and asks us for our order in English.
I can say without a doubt that the difference between knowing a lot about a language and actually speaking it are two completely different things. I started studying Spanish in high school and I breezed through every level with A pluses. I retained an extraordinary amount of vocabulary and I have added to it over the years. I know how to conjugate verbs in many tenses. I can read most texts and at least get the gist of even the most complicated ones. But I cannot in any way, shape, or form, “speak” the language. Speaking Spanish for me is like constructing sentences using wooden blocks. The blocks are jumbled on the floor and I have to sift through all of them to find which ones I want and then decide which order to put them in. Once I’ve completed one sentence I have to go through the whole process again, although in the mean time, someone has shaken up all of the blocks and dumped them on the floor mixing them all up again. It’s a difficult and frustrating task.
Understanding what people say is not much better. The combination of unfamiliar accents and slang coupled with people’s normal tendency to speak quickly and to slur their words almost guarantees that I won’t get but one or two words in a few sentences. Right now I’m operating on context. I’m usually not really understanding what people say, just acting on a hunch. When someone says something that is out of context…forget it. Especially since I’m taken off guard and not prepared to work outside the realm of the immediate situation.
The only time I ever feel remotely successful at speaking Spanish is when I have been drinking. I’m sure my perceived brilliance is much the same as people who say they drive better when they’re drunk or people who think they dance really well after downing seven cosmos. Words do flow freely from my mouth, although they are probably mostly the wrong words and it is certainly highly amusing for the person on the other end of the conversation. But I suppose that even some wrong words are better than standing there blinking dumbly, my tongue paralyzed because I’m afraid of leaving out a reflexive pronoun.
On the bright side, I‘m doing much better with my reading and sometimes I can get on a roll so that I’m almost thinking in Spanish and not constantly translating into English. This only works until I hit a word that I don’t know that is imperative to the understanding of the text. Then it’s back to painstaking translation, word for word. Even that doesn’t always work. At times I find myself completely perplexed by an idiomatic construction that I’m trying to translate literally or by words that have alternate meanings that I’m unaware of. For instance, when we were at the Prado in Madrid I was convinced that the painting that I was looking at was titled, “St. Augustus Conjures a Plague of Lobsters.” I have admitted previously that my knowledge of Christian lore is somewhat lacking, but I swear I would remember a story about a plague of lobsters. I was confused because a plague of lobsters doesn’t sound all that threatening. What are they going to do? Pinch you to death? Once they got on land all you would need to do was break into a slow jog and watch them dry up. Mmm. It actually sounds more delicious than frightening. I’ll have a plague of lobsters with some butter on the side.
We’ve been studying every day with our Rosetta Stone software. The lessons consist of four different pictures or scenarios that flash on the screen and you have to match what the person is saying to the correct box. I have to say this method has been extraordinarily helpful in building my vocabulary. I don’t know what it would be like to start learning a language from scratch with this program, but for building on the knowledge that we already have, it’s perfect. It can also lead to confusion, though. In Madrid we were sitting at the counter in our hotel room doing some lessons. Adam noticed that there was someone standing outside of our room, apparently waiting for the appropriate time to knock. It was the maid, and she must have been confused because A) we didn’t speak very good Spanish once we opened the door, and B) we were having a very strange conversation to begin with:
“She is rubbing her arm.”
“She is scratching her arm.”
“She is squeezing his hand.”
“He is nodding.”
“She is pinching his arm.”
“She is punching his arm.”
I’m wondering if perhaps she thought that she might have to intervene in some sort of weird domestic dispute and was thinking twice about getting involved. I would have tried to explain, but it was way beyond my powers of communication.
And here is the paradox of learning a language: You must speak to people in order to get fluent, but you want to avoid speaking to people at all costs until you get fluent. Most people upon realizing that you don’t speak Spanish very well will cut the conversation short either because they don’t want to deal with trying to understand you or they are trying to spare you the agony of having to come up with the right words. A small amount of the population will, upon finding out that you’re still learning, will actually try to draw you into a conversation. Whether they are trying to be charitable by helping you practice or they are getting some sort of sadistic thrill out of seeing you struggle, I don’t know. I got drawn into such a conversation on the plane to Argentina. Of course, it was my own fault. I exchanged a couple of one-word pleasantries with the woman sitting next to me and all of a sudden she had roped me into a full-blown conversation. Sweat was pouring down my face as I tried desperately to understand what she was asking me. I knew that she was trying to speak slowly and explain herself so that I would understand, but I was so panicked even that wasn’t working. Finally I decided to simply ignore her questions and just start talking about myself. I really don’t think she cared. I ultimately managed to extract myself from the conversation and put my headphones on, all the while thinking two things about myself: “You are SUCH a weenie,” and “You are so screwed.”