When I was in high school (way back in the last century), kids planning to go to college were encouraged to take two years of a foreign language. I took Spanish my junior and senior years.

In college, I think I took four semesters of Spanish, although I can only recall two of my instructors, a woman with blond curly hair and a mean old lady from Cuba.

I got As and Bs in my Spanish classes, mostly because I was able to learn the grammar and do well on tests. I hated speaking out loud in class. My accent was horrible, and my brain was terribly slow at figuring out what I wanted to say, remembering the correct words, conjugating the verbs, and getting the articles right. It was frustrating to know three-year-old kids in Mexico City and Madrid spoke better Spanish than I did.

Many years later, when I was in my mid-30s, I attended free Spanish classes taught by an American university student who was fluent in the language and had been to Latin America several times. In a room full of Midwesterners in their 20s who’d never learned a single word of Spanish, I was the star pupil, but my accent was still horrible and my slow brain kept my speech halting.

I hadn’t studied Spanish in years when I met Miz T, an American woman who spoke English as her native tongue, but had been studying and speaking Spanish for several decades. The next summer, Miz T and I befriended two Guatemalan sisters. The sisters spoke limited English (which was better than my limited Spanish), but when I wanted to communicate something complicated to either of them, I had to get Miz T to translate for me. I practiced my limited Spanish with Miz T and the Guatemalan sisters, but I made mistakes all the time.

One time I tried to tell one of the sisters that I had Miz T’s birthday card for her to sign. Instead of saying tengo la tarjecta, (I have the card), I told her that she had the card (tiene la tarjeta). Actually, I told her she had la carta, which is a playing card. She must have been really confused.

Yo quiero hablar español con mi amigas de Guatemala.

(I want to speak Spanish with my girlfriends from Guatemala.)

When I migrated to warmer lands last winter, Miz T let me take some of her Spanish lesson CDs. Each lesson only lasts half an hour. At first I diligently did a lesson every day. I had a lot of free time, and it was easy to keep up. Then I went to the city, the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, back to the city. I got busy working and playing, and my Spanish lessons were the first (self-imposed) obligation I let slip away.

When I got out to the woods, I barely thought about studying Spanish. I had nowhere to plug in my laptop, so I didn’t use it to do my lessons. I tried to write a letter in Spanish to Miz T and the sisters, but my vocabulary was lacking. I didn’t know important words like trees (arboles), mountain (montaña), or chipmunk (ardilla). One day I bought a small Spanish-English dictionary for ten cents at a thrift store, and I was back on the Spanish train, doing my lessons everyday (for at least a week).

One morning when I emerged from my van, I found campers who’d arrived in the night. As I spoke with them, I realized English was not their native (or primary) language. They were Spanish speakers.

When I explained the fees to one guy ($20 per night for camping, $7 per night for the extra vehicle), he looked confused. I slowed down and explained again, then decided to use a little of my Spanish language knowledge. I meant to ask Entiende? (Do you understand?). I realized ten minutes later that I’d asked Entiendo? (Do I understand?) I bet the camper was thinking Espero que entiende, gringa! (I hope you understand, white lady!)

Perdon. Necesito estudiar español ahora.

(Excuse me. I need to study Spanish now.)

Pimsleur Spanish Basic Course - Level 1 Lessons 1-10 CD: Learn to Speak and Understand Basic Spanish with Pimsleur Language Programs

About Blaize Sun

I live in my van, which makes me a rubber tramp. I like to see places I've never seen before, and I like to visit the places I love again and again. I like to play with color. I make collages and hemp jewelry and cheerful winter hats. I take photographs and (sometimes, not in a long time) write poetry. All of those things make me an artist. Although I like to spread joy and to make people laugh, my wit can be sharp. I try to stay positives in all situations, to find the goodness in all people. But I often feel compelled to point out bullshit when I smell it. I like to have fun, to dance, to eat yummy food, to sit by a fire and share stories. I want to know what people hold dear and important, not just make surface small talk. This blog is a way for me to share stories. This blog is made up of my stories, rants, and observations, as well as my photographs.

2 Responses »

  1. One time I was working at a school and tried unsuccessfully to communicate with a group of parents who spoke only Spanish. I tried to talk to them with my limited French, and we all had a little laugh! Then to show them how little Spanish I know, I said a couple of random vocabulary words I’d picked up from living in a place w/ a high Spanish speaking population. No one laughed, but there were some confused faces. Later when I told a bilingual teacher about it, I found out I had essentially pointed toward the classroom and said, “The children are homosexuals!”

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