Idiota de idioma (a progress report)

La dignidad está sobrevalorada.  That is supposed to say “Dignity is overrated,” which I have long claimed is our family motto.  The phrase I write here in Spanish may be grammatically incorrect, or there may be a better way to word that in Spanish, but at this point…I don’t care.

I am at first stage conversation: It doesn’t have to be perfect or pretty; I only care if you catch my drift.

I liken it to how I learned to play tennis. I’m just dropping the ball in front of me and swinging, hoping it goes to the other side of the net and stays in. I don’t swing (talk) pretty, but once I get it over (that you understand what I say), I now work on waiting for you to respond and then see if I can get it back a second time (conversation).

I know, like tennis, it’s better to learn proper form from the beginning so I don’t have to undo bad habits, but honestly, practice time is over, and I am in the game.

The calm quiet and clear diction of classroom Spanish, like buenas noches, yields to the real-time quick interaction that results in buenoche. Two recent examples:

–        While out, a semi-crazed man approached my son and spoke in rapid, angry Spanish. I intervened to say that my son doesn’t speak Spanish, but instead of saying, “He doesn’t speak Spanish (No habla español),” I informed the stranger “YOU don’t speak Spanish (No hablas español).” The man was suddenly puzzled, stopped, thought for a moment, and walked away.

–        I hurt my foot while hiking. Some days later, when someone asked, “How is your injury? (¿Cómo está tu lesión?)” I meant to say, “It’s better (Es mejor)” but responded with, “It is a woman (Es mujer).” I laughed. Jiab did not.

In my defense, Spanish is overly-sold sometimes as “easy to learn.” People say, “Just pronounce it the way it’s written,” but then they hit you with the exceptions, or as Jiab once put it, “X sound like a J, J sounds like an H, and H makes no sound at all…sometimes!”

For years I called the city “Valencia” from the comfort and safety of Texas. We traveled there, only to be greeted by scrunched up faces of non-understanding as I asked about the city, until they pierced the non-Spaniard pronunciation and would cheerfully correct, “Oh, Balenthia!”

Then there are the little tweaks that can land one in hot (or inappropriate) water. In English, I’d say “I am 57 years old” but in Spanish one says “I have 57 years (Tengo 57 años).” But see that little tilde over the n? Leave it out (or pronounce it wrong) as I have, and I am saying “I have 57 anuses (Tengo 57 anos). 

A long time ago, I walked around a market square, thinking I was asking how much things were (¿Cuánto cuesta?) but was actually everyone how much for ME (¿Cuánto cuesto?). I thought they had really cheap prices.

Yes, I know it is just as difficult to master English. Going to polish off the polish sausage? Perhaps you should butter up the cook and break the ice, first!

So what’s the solution? That’s where the family motto comes in about forgetting about dignity or looking foolish, along with remembering two great role models, namely my parents (who never spoke anything but English, whether the American or British versions). 

My father, a man grounded in Tennessee philosophy, always told me, “If it works only one time out of ten, sometimes that just means you need to try it 100.”

My mother gave me a love of the form and beauty of languages. She was an amateur (coming from the French for one who does things for love, not profit) wordsmith, from when she won the Shakespeare scholar award at her British prep school to her daily devotional time tackling crosswords the rest of her life.

So, I keep taking my swings and little by little (poco a poco), I get the ball in more frequently and even get in a couple of good volleys.

There are still many confused exchanges: when a store clerk we are friends with asked where our son was, I proudly answered her question in Spanish by informing her I was going to take a nap.

On the other hand, the local shawarma guy said he wishes he could pick up English like I have picked up Spanish in ordering from him.

At least I won’t starve, and laughter (especially at one’s self) is universal.

7 thoughts on “Idiota de idioma (a progress report)”

  1. Haha! I was nodding as l read this. It’s me! I took three months of survival Spanish because all my friends who went to the proper schools were just as clueless and l got to the point that l just need to be understood :-). It works and it upped my confidence and l still “shoot bombs” on a daily basis but l don’t care. Oh, and l still say Valencia.. :-).

    • Thanks, Kemkem. I used to tell my students that Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth each had almost twice as many strikeouts as home runs, but no one remembers the strikeouts, so keep swinging away!

  2. Love the way you’re living the language! I do not have a knack for language – would try my hardest to get a few phrases down – and then would realize I was speaking the wrong language! Keep up the game tactics – some day you’ll hit a home run – oh wait – you were playing tennis!!
    Love your journey!!

  3. Ah, Jim. Well written. As a teacher of Spanish and French I applaud your attitude that I tried so hard to impart to my students. It won’t be perfect from the start (neither is our own native language of English, BTW!) but it will be SO rewarding to interact with people and make new friends! keep up the good work, you two. Oh, and DO keep that tilde in mind.😅


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