Yeah, so that idea that a person can just “absorb” a new language? Bollocks. As though language immersion is literal, like I’d be out to make photocopies and suddenly find myself saturated, thus fluent in Spanish: ¿Puedo obtener 20 páginas por favor? (Can I get 20 pages please?). Of course, what I really said was ¿Puedo obtener 20 vaginas por favor? (Can I get 20 vaginas please?) and now I’m banned from the Wal-Mart. Smart companies make it easy on a gringa :
Learning a new language is tricky, and it’s not just the vocabulatory land mines. Syntax, grammar and upside down punctuation all conspire to make me say foolish things. It’s the anticipation of this buffoonery that paralyzes me.
Luckily, Mexico is the birthplace of the the world’s best prescription for social anxiety: tequila. With tequila, I’m bold. With tequila I’m multilingual (in English and French, but still…) With tequila, I’ll ask for pages and laugh if I receive vaginas.
Nancy and Rodolfo have a housekeeper, Anna. The other day I came home to find Anna cleaning and her husband planing the bathroom door because it had swollen so much in the humidity that it no longer fit inside the frame. True story. I wasn’t yet drunk on tequila – it was only 11 am – so I slunk unilingually into my room. Anna wouldn’t be deterred. She greeted me in Spanish (thankfully I can manage Hola) and then began to make small talk.
I feel like a jackass for not knowing more Spanish, and I’m loathe to respond in English because I feel like it implies that she should know my language. On the other hand, staring blankly and shrugging is too lame. As for the followers of Jesus Christ or Hare Krishna or Joan Jett, my salvation also came in two words: Google Translate.
“I’m sorry. My Spanish is not good,” I typed into the minimalist box. Lo siento. Mi español no es bueno. OK, honestly, that’s like someone making fun of how easy Spanish is. “Lo siento,” I shook my head ruefully. “Mi español no es bueno.” Anna’s eyes lit up – she understood!
I raised a finger – hold on – and typed in “It’s not that I don’t want to talk to you.” No es que no quiero hablar con usted. An intermediate sentence: no ‘r’s to roll, but how the hell do you pronounced “usted”? Does it rhyme with busted or boosted? Anna launched into a lively monologue leaving me to consider the matter. Rusted or roosted?
I spent the next several days practicing my new favourite sentence. “Lo siento,” I’d say, theatrically shaking my head in exaggerated sorrow. “Mi español no es bueno.” I clapped out the syllables, finding the internal rhythm to the sentence. I burned a new neural pathway into my aging brain by inserting the vocabulary into song standards: Swing looooo, siiii-ennnnn-toooo, comin’ for to carry me home…
In related news, local non-profit PEACE just announced that they’re opening a language school geared towards tourists and expats which will blend vocabulary and grammar with cultural activities catered for everyday use abroad. According to the press release, “Students will also receive important cultural tips that will enrich their visit including activities such as salsa dancing, Mexican slang, Mexican cooking or learning about Mexican history, art and music.” I’m going to sign up, if only for the module on photocopying.
* Lo siento
1. I’m sorry
2. I’m afraid