I Came, I Saw, I Conjugated – Learning Spanish in Mexico

My father’s voice came through the phone as if he were next door, not 4,000 miles away.  “Are you fluent yet?” he asked.  Knowing that I had to say no made me feel jealous of his ability. He took two years of Russian when he was in college and can still hold a conversation.  College for him was 50 years ago.  I can’t remember the words I learned yesterday.

I had taken two years of Spanish in high school, and two more years in college. I had made progress, but there was so much to learn.  Now I was living in Mexico and attending language school three hours per day. This ought to drive the Spanish into my thick skull even if I do seem to lack the knack for language acquisition.

Frustrating as it can be, Spanish immersion school is also a lot of fun.  Where else can you discuss the world’s problems with people of all ages, from all parts of the globe, in a language none of you really know?  A woman from Italy and I argued about who we thought was worse, Bush or Berlusconi.  In our stumbling Spanish, we discussed the Beijing Olympics and gave thanks that we weren’t trying to learn a tonal language.  And we compared notes on culture- how they view things in the US, Mexico, and Japan.

Basilica - Guanajuato, Mexico

Basilica – Guanajuato, Mexico

At the beginning it’s kind of Zen.  Every cell in your brain has to concentrate one-hundred percent of the time.  Fully immersed, you do begin to think in Spanish.  However, your limited knowledge doesn’t allow you to have very complex thoughts.  “I am walking in the street. It is hot.” This does wonders for the mental health.

Then things get murkier. Ninety-odd possible conjugations for any given verb?!  Even then, one could possibly conquer them if only all the verbs would follow the rules.  Damn those irregulars!  And just when you start to think there’s hope- they introduce the subjunctive.

The subjunctive is a commonly used mode in Spanish for talking about things that may or may not exist, things that didn’t or haven’t yet happened, things that are subjective (and in Spanish just about everything is subjective).

After learning the formula for conjugating the verbs, the first homework we were given was to make a list of phrases describing our ideal mate- perfect example of something that probably doesn’t exist.  For me, this was the homework that kept on giving.  My original list had 28 items, but everyday, I would think, “algo mas” and add to it.

Looking at my list now, I can understand why I’ll never find my Subjunctive Man.  I flirted with the idea of writing to Antonio Banderas since he meets the criteria for at least three things on my list (rich, handsome, fluent in Spanish).  Perhaps if I sent him a letter in Spanish, he would be kind enough to correct my grammar.  I made that original list three and a half years ago.  It now has forty-some items and I am still struggling with the subjunctive.

The fact is, my capacity for self-criticism will probably always outshine my language ability and I will never consider myself fluent.  But there are signs of hope.

I’ve graduated from watching action flicks (little dialogue), to sit coms (simplistic dialogue followed by laugh-track which allows processing time), to occasionally being able to follow an episode of “Ley y Orden” – Law And Order (which I think can be found at any given moment on a some TV station in every corner of the world).

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Talking on the phone in Spanish still strikes terror into my heart, but I do it on a regular basis. The woman at my local hardware store must have thought I was crazy when I pointed to a light bulb and asked for a balloon, but it gave us both a good laugh.  I will continue the struggle. Ojala, tenga exito algun dia!

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  • Miguel Garcia said at 2011-06-18T02:13:51+0000: It gets better, I started learning english when I was 12 and I'm still learning... I've been living in the US for 12 years now, my partner is American, I speak it daily, my thoughts and dreams are english very funny, even the people in my dreams speak english. The key to really learning a language is to not be afraid of making mistakes, most people will correct you and as soon as you learn the right way of saying something then repeat, repeat, repeat!