Language Soup

My fractured Spanish came into play at immigration, mere minutes off the plane.

How many days were we planning to stay?

"Ninety," Scott said.


"No, ninety."

A puzzled look.

"Noventa," I said, dredging deep for the word. A delay caused by my innumeracy as much as my crap Spanish.

Raised eyebrows followed by (I think) a joke about staying in Mexico for such a long time. I smiled. Scott smiled. The official behind the counter smiled, then scribbled down 90 on the form. So far, so good. (What was the equivalent expression in Spanish? I had no idea.)

On the bus to San Miguel de Allende I stared out the window at all the signs, trying to figure out what they meant. Idiosyncratic advertising syntax and a barrage of words I’d never seen limited my success. Spanish words and phrases started buzzing in my head. What did rincón mean? Palapa? Relox? A reloj is a watch, my brain told me, remembering at the same time how to say: "I don’t remember what any of these words mean."

I studied Spanish in my first year of university with very average grades. Two years later I stayed in Salmanca in Spain for five months, studying the language and culture intensively for four. By the end of my stay in Spain, I was able to have reasonably fluent conversations about pretty much everything. My tenses tended to stay in simple past and present with a tiny smattering of conditional, subjunctive and future. I’d still muck up the two different forms of the verb to be, feminine and masculine, prepositions, subjunctive (except in the formulaic sentences where it’s always used), and erred on the side of paranoia with my use of the formal you, causing much hilarity.

I learned how to lisp on Zs and many Cs and Ds, to drop the d in words that ended -ado so that all such words rhymed with Bilbao (our teacher hated us doing, this but that’s how the people all around us spoke including our teacher when she wasn’t concentrating), and to pronounce "ll" so it sounded more like a j then a y (this last one was our teacher’s fault too, haling as she did from Madrid.) Somehow these pronunciations became embedded in me.

Back in Sydney, and later in New York, the only Spanish speakers I came across were from Latin America. When I spoke to them, they laughed. Apparently the lisping is heard by some as a posh accent. Imagine someone from, say Norway, who has learned their English from teachers at Eton and Harrow and now sounds like a Norwegian Prince Charles with mangled grammar and limited vocab, but lots of plummy vowels. Shudder.

I became increasingly reluctant to speak Spanish. If I spoke without the lisp, I lost all fluency, forgot most verb cases, and indeed most words. If I said bugger it and lisped, I got laughed at. So over the twelve years since I studied in Salamanca my Spanish has dwindled away, but turns out not to have died completely. One day in Mexico and I had the same headache I once knew so well. Head throbbing from too much input, trying to access words and sounds and ideas long buried, straining to really, really listen, to make meaning from the words and phrases uttered all around me. I am both better and much, much worse than I thought I’d be. It’s does my head in.

Because Scott has never studied Spanish, and on his visits to Mexico has been wrapped up in writing books in English, he has very little Spanish. He navigates, I talk.

I can do everyday interactions, but am hopeless at overhearing conversations. There are so many words and expressions I don’t recognise. They don’t have the same plural you as in Spain. I haven’t heard any of the slang I knew. Is that because they don’t use that slang in this part of Mexico? Or because it’s now completely out of date? Or both?

Until Thursday night, not one person had laughed at the lisp (except Scott). One man asked me where I learned my Spanish. When I said Salamanca, he was delighted. Told me how much he loves Spanish accents. He seemed to think it was cute. Scott says he was just trying to chat me up (how do you say that in Mexican Spanish I wonder?).

Thursday night we went to a restaurant/bar further up the hill. Drank margaritas (our first here) and ate jicama and enchiladas and had two more margaritas and then ended up in the bar talking to the manager’s brother and girlfriend and another couple. My Spanish was firing along, fuelled by tequila. I understood most everything that was being said. (The manager and his brother have lived in the USA as much as Mexico, so Scott had someone to talk to).

The guitarist played songs by Silvio Rodriguez and then joined us. We talked about how superb Rodriguez is, about John Dos Pasos, Enrique Bostelmann and what Australians and Mexicans think of the United States (don’t worry, USians, as you can imagine, it’s all good). Through all of this more rounds kept being ordered. Someone seemed to think it would be a good idea for us to try shots of local tequila, and my Spanish began a precipitious decline to the point that when we left, I was unable to understand a simple query as to whether we would be returning.

Lesson: two glasses alcohol, good; any more, bad. Next morning a hangover added to the language headache. Surprisingly much writing was done.
Today I begin one-on-one tutoring. Three hours a day of Intensive Spanish for five days. By the end of the week I hope to have the language soup under control and my lisp eradicated.

San Miguel de Allende, 8 December 2003