September 20, 2019
Two or three of us get together on Tuesdays to practice our Spanish dialogue. We have what people here call Survival Spanish (“A kilo of beans, please; doctor, I think I’ve broken my finger; where can I catch a bus home?”) but deeper non-English conversation is a rarity for us. We end up hanging out a lot with other expats, and feel a touch guilty for doing so. But otherwise, we’d hardly have a real conversation with anyone. By and large, expatriates here are educated people, and we’re used to nuanced discussions and well-phrased arguments. Unless our Spanish is top-rate, we always feel frustrated and disappointed in how a talk goes.
A few people I know have been around long enough that they’ve mastered Mexican Spanish to the point that they can converse for minutes on end, or more. A lot of us, though, choke on the irregular verb endings, and even the regular ones. And don’t get me started on the “por” and “para” business; two words, both of which can mean “for,” that seem almost interchangeable but have clearly different connotations to native Spanish speakers.
Then, there are the vowel sounds. English abbreviates its vowels, and a lot of words have the nondescript short er sound, as in “the,” or the second vowel sound in “forward” as it’s commonly pronounced. Spanish, by contrast, extends its vowels, giving the lips a workout. I imagine lip-reading Spanish is far easier than doing it with English-speakers.
You have to train your lips and mouth away from whatever regional English or North American accent you have to express yourself comprehensibly. Midwestern accents, in particular, subject Spanish vowels to horrible abuse, because (I think) of the need to switch to using the lips and tongue, not the throat, to make sounds. For English people, the need is to bring sound production out of the nasal cavity.
Tenses in Spanish were, I realised long ago, designed in an unrecorded sub-circle of Dante’s Inferno: a sort of Area 51 of the Underworld, except it chose to release its grammatical aliens, not keep them a secret. For example, a present-tense English verb like ‘make’ is identical in all parts except the third-person singular: I make, you make, she makes, we make… It changes to ‘made’ in the perfect (past) tense, but then every individual takes the same ending: I made, he made, we made, etc. There’s no “mades” in the third-person. Our spelling, admittedly, was probably put together in a linguistic assembly hall situated next to the infernal Spanish tense-designers, but we’re talking speech here, not reading and writing.
Then there are extra tenses in Spanish, such as the conditional, that we don’t have in English. People also drop the person, so one doesn’t say “Yo soy,” (“I am”) but merely “Soy,” the “I’ being implied by the verb ending. This is deeply disconcerting at first. And later on, as well.
Often, it becomes easier to cheat and default to present-tense verbs. People will understand essentially what we’re trying to communicate, and we won’t accidentally change our intended meaning from one verb to another because we wrongly guessed an ending or perhaps misused a stem-change, where the middle part of the verb becomes something different.
Then, not everyone who lives in a Mexican village produces grammatically perfect speech. Some people never learned good grammar from their parents or friends. And there are local abbreviations: “hasta luego,” or “see you later,” sometimes becomes “hasta logo.” Or “por favor” (“please”) becomes porfa. Grasping such details is a separate learning process on its own.
We end up smiling and nodding a lot, and wishing we could do better, but we can’t. When I first settled here in 2010, a friend of mine chastised me for not just plunging in and picking it up like a thirty-year-old acquaintance of hers had done. But memory doesn’t work as well after your forties, and won’t absorb complex new information easily. I’ve learned some constructs a half-dozen times, yet they’ve not stuck in my brain. And if you don’t use an expression, then you don’t really learn it, so you become stuck on a hamster-wheel, going round and around again, but not making any progress.
It frustrates me that while my French wasn’t great in school, I still have more of it today than I do Spanish. One time I had to interview a businessman from Paris who wasn’t able to speak much English. But his Sorbonne-educated French was grammatically perfect, and I understood almost all he said to me in a forty-minute conversation, as he understood my own halting constructs. In Paris a few months ago, I found I was still at least as fluent in French as I was in Spanish. Not that says much, but it was still noticeable.
There is no alternative to trying, though. You can’t move to a foreign country and expect the locals to speak English. There are 440-million native Spanish speakers in the world, compared to an estimated 360-million native English speakers, so there’s no assumption that “I know my language is obscure,” as Danes or Dutch people have said to me. Sure, more people have English as a second language, while there are under 100-million who know some Spanish, but after Mandarin Chinese, Spanish is regularly used by more people in everyday life than any other language.
So, we’ll get together on Tuesday with our dictionaries and my tattered old book of irregular Spanish verbs, and muddle our way through for an hour or so. Sometimes, one of us knows a word or phrase that the other does not, and we can share that. Sometimes, we can clarify a point of grammar that was previously obscure. And sometimes we just stall, because of what we don’t know, then work around the problem with simpler or clumsier phrasing.
We’re stubborn, though, and we’ll stay here. We like bright colours, savoury foods and the collective acceptance that a person can be twenty minutes late without society collapsing. We like not freezing our butts off in the northern U.S. or Canada, we like being able to eat out regularly even though we might have under thousand dollars a month, and we appreciate that this place has mountains, green trees all year round, and a graciousness that isn’t always available elsewhere.
But oh, those irregular verbs… those irregular @#$&ing verbs ….