Language Lessons

Language lessons. Every time I hear those words I can’t help but hear them in the voice of the Asian kid who talks like Howard Cosell in Better Off Dead. But language lessons is what we have been doing this week—2 hours every day. We managed to find a very inexpensive private tutor who lives right down the street from us. On the day that we consulted with her before the lessons began, she asked us to buy a newspaper, read three articles each, and underline the verbs. When we got to our first lesson she proceeded to take us through some review and then had us read from the articles.

In the classes that I teach, I have always found it particularly taxing to listen to kids read out loud when they are clearly bad at it. This is why we listen to the Shakespeare plays on CD and don’t read them out loud. I find it peculiar that those students who are the worst readers are usually the first volunteers to read out loud. They always want to be the character with the longest speech in the play or want to read long passages from novels without ceding control to anyone else. I will scan the classroom helplessly looking for another volunteer feeling like Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. “Anyone?” I ask, purposely not looking in the direction of the frantically waving hand. “Anyone want to be Creon? Anyone?”

But now I am that kid, only I don’t particularly want to be reading out loud because I know how bad I am. I have always had a problem with accents. I cannot for the life of me replicate any accent with any degree of verity unless I don’t actually mean to. For instance I may be able to faithfully replicate a Jamaican accent if I’m trying to sound Scottish. Anyway, my deficiency in this area was painfully apparent as I read through the text. I knew what it should sound like, but it invariably sounded like I was from Texas.

After we read the articles (not all of them—probably only as much as she could stand), she began to engage us in conversation about them. Now, I remember doing these little conversation exercises in high school. “Where are you from?” “What kind of things do you do in your free time?” Instead of these pleasant little exchanges, she was attempting to talk to us about the financial crisis. “What do you think caused the financial crisis?” “Who do you think will be most affected?” Adam and I stared at each other momentarily with a look of disbelief. Then in halting Spanish mixed with copious English words, (Como se dice “short selling”?) we muddled through a very strange and painful conversation. It was almost as comical as when Adam tried to explain his job to her. How does she expect us to explain things in Spanish that we can barely explain in English?

I have to hand it to her. She refuses to speak English to us unless there is a word that she can’t explain in Spanish, and she won’t allow us to speak English either, gently chastising us when we use an English word when she knows that we know how to say it in Spanish. In just a few days my listening comprehension has greatly improved. My speaking? Well, I guess it has improved in the sense that have given up on trying to be correct and just ramble on, charging like a rhino through my Spanish vocabulary. Today she was very impressed that I had used the subjunctive properly. Unfortunately, I used it by mistake.

But we will continue, probably for a couple of more weeks after this. I go and buy the paper every couple of days to get fresh articles to read and I’m sure the people at the newsstand are wondering, “What the hell does this Texan girl want with an Argentine newspaper?”

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