Wednesday, July 30, 2008

key to culture

If you cannot speak Spanish, you will never live in Mexico.

Well, those eleven words should arouse some comment. The corollary is: You may reside in Mexico, but you will never live there.

Language is a tricky topic. I will skip over the theory of what language is and get right to the practical point.

Every society communicates with a language. Until you can speak in that language, you will miss out on everything that people say in that language. Until you can think in that language, you will miss what people really mean. Only when you learn to think in Spanish will you be able to understand the Mexican culture.

Right now, I am still in the category of barely learning to communicate at the level of a four-year old. Two anecdotes from this last trip prove the point.

When I arrived at the Manzanillo Airport, I purchased my taxi voucher and headed off to meet my driver, Agustino. He knew very little English, but I was prepared to have the type of deep conversation any child under five can have.

We both had great fun in trading words for wind and rain. Green hills. And my favorite: coconuts and bananas. I can always rely on agriculture to save the conversational day. It also helps that I know a bit about growing bananas. By translating just a few words, I can learn new ones.

And then I got cocky. We talked about growing corn. Putting on my best South Dakota attitude, I tried to ask if the corn was sweet corn or silage. For the life of me, I could not remember the word for cattle. The best I could do was talk about bulls and what they eat. But I think I asked whether I could eat a bull. We laughed almost the full half-hour ride to Melaque. I tried to learn more, and I did -- letting myself be the butt of the joke.

My second tale has a different spin. I walked the two or three miles over to Barra de Navidad in the morning. By the afternoon, the heat and humidity forestalled the option of walking back to Melaque. But I knew that was not a problem. I had ridden the bus between the two towns last December.

I waited at what I thought was a regular bus stop. (Yes. Yes. I know there are no real bus stops. But I had seen other people waiting for the bus at the spot.) The bus pulled up. I hopped on, and said in my best Spanish: "Cuánto cuesta?" In the universal bored voice of all public bus drivers, he responded, what sounded to me like: "Seven thousand." Now, I am from out of town, but I knew that was not right. I must have heard wrong. I asked again. This time the subtext shifted from boredom to irritation. My mind translated his curt response as: "A thousand children."

I then did what every defeated warrior does. I surrendered by holding out my handful of pitiful coins. He took one with nary a smile. As I walked to the back of the bus, my fellow passengers showed the same compassion you would show a child who mistakenly missed the short bus -- by keeping their eyes glued to the floor.

The lesson is the same from both stories. I need to study more. It is impossible to pick up a language merely by being around it. I laugh when I hear people say "I'll just pick it up" -- as if Spanish were a quart of milk or the flu, rather than a language. (Well, I guess it was also a flu, but that is a different story.)

Because osmosis will not work, I need to get back to my formal lessons -- especially those from the Learnables. And then I can venture into the world of taxi and bus drivers -- and actually have a conversation.

On my first night in Melaque, I allowed myself to be so intimidated by the thought of going out to buy food that I remained hungry in the house. That was doubly troubling because when I went to the market the next day, the clerk had a very nice conversation with me in a mixture of Spanish and English.

I need to first learn Spanish that I may start thinking in Spanish.

The only place I did not need Spanish was in the house I test drove for the week in Melaque. That is the next post.


Anonymous said...

Steve, Steve, Steve, learn that what you say in Spanish isn't as important as how hard you try. If you're laughed at, laugh WITH them. Immersion and study are the best ways to learn. Go to an all-Mexican party and listen, listen, listen. Even if you only understand a few words, you'll find as time passes, you'll pick up more. Watch tv in Spanish. Watch the pictures and the announcers. You will pick up the "jist" of it and learn as you go. Even if you speak "Silly Spanish", your efforts at speaking are appreciated and rewarded. Mexicans have PATIENCE, as I've seen you realize in your past blogs. Now it's time to implement that into your actions and get out there and "talk". The rewards are priceless!

Steve Cotton said...

Numbers. I need to work on my numbers. I am great with the small ones -- as long as centavos do not show up. (That, of course, was the problem with the bus story. I just did not realize it.) But don't worry about my spirit being broken. Not geting back on the horse is as bad as voting Socialist -- as my Tory friends say.

Brenda said...

It makes me laugh also when I hear people say they will "pick it up" when they get here. Don't they realise how hard it is to learn a language? After all we are still learning english after all these years.
Hard work is the only way to learn it, unfortunately; but when you have a "lightbulb" moment it is a great feeling.

Michael Dickson said...

Your post´s initial sentence is quite true, and you are to be congratulated for your perceptivity.

For a foreigner, actually living in Mexico (using your definition) is very, very difficult. Few do it. And the desirability of doing it is debatable.

Almost all will prefer residing.

Calypso said...

I live in a part of Mexico where virtually no one speaks English - my Spanish is marginal at best.

This is seldom a problem - but I do have my wife to rely on when push comes to shove-

Kindness, patience and using other senses will help. I don't see myself as ever really having a handle on Spanish - to darn old I think.

That said I do feel part of the Mexican experience - naive perhaps - but confidence and a willingness to experience life wherever and whenever seems to work.

Bob Mrotek said...


I applaud you. You have the right attitude. It takes about ten years to get really comfortable in another language because you have to learn a vocabulary of about 15,000 words plus variations plus masculine/feminine plus verb conjugations and idiomatic expressions. I have been through this process in Mexico and I can tell you that if you are diligent in your study in about a year you will come out of the fog and see daylight and in about three years you will feel bold but it will take about eight years before you wade right in and about the tenth year you can start correcting other peoples' Spanish. You don't need classes. All you need is self discipline. I think you have what it takes. You and I are from the same generation. I will be watching your progress with interest. Learn 25 new words every day and I will buy you a beer. Heck, I will buy you a whole keg!

Theresa in Mèrida said...

Steve you are so right. I think it may be easier to be immersed at anonymous said if you don't live around English speakers. Your conversation with the taxi driver about the corn was doomed, there is no sweet corn like there is NOB, so he probably didn't understand what you were asking, not because of the words but because of the context. For next time the word for cattle is ganado. Not exactly a word you would learn in Spanish class. I can see it now. "Juan tiene 5 ganado."
The hard numbers are 15,50 and 500,13 and 30 and then all the 60s and 70s can be easily confused even among Spanish speakers.

Doug said...

What the applied linguistics studies, in the James Asher and Stephen Kreshen camp, seem to show is that the more and more you listen to Comprehensible Input, like the Learnables and SpanishPod (a free source), that production in the language will come as a natural result of the Comprehensible Input. A production approach, without understand, produces a 96% failure rate in trying to acquire a second language.

Babs said...

I never realized how hard it is for immigrants to come to the USA until I was in Paris for almost 3 weeks and not ONE person spoke to me!
I have an ex-son-in-law from Jordan who learned English watching TV.........
The Mexicans will always be helpful and as "anonymous" says Patient.......Remember my story of asing at the PEmex station for the attendant to "limpio mi manzanas.....I have certainly learned and am still learning from my mistakes! Oh and they love when you say "Mi Espanol es muy mal" and they ALWAYS reassure you that their English is worse. It's so precious!

Steve Cotton said...

Brenda -- I, of course, stole the "I'll pick it up" discourse off of Theresa's blog. At least I steal only the best.

Michael -- I will strive for living, but I will be happy if I can get to residing.

John -- One "advantage" of Melaque is the large community of Mexicans who have lived or worked in the States. Most of them speak English as if they were raised with it -- some were. But it is a trap. Because most of the Mexicans who live in the area speak nary a word of English. And I do not want to end up ghettoed with only English speakers -- no matter their nationality.

Bob -- When I learn self-discipline, I will learn Spanish -- and I wll be as thin as David Niven.

Theresa -- "Ganado?" I am doomed. The last time I said I wanted to eat something like that in San Antonio, I ended up with some nicely-fried steer parts. (Well, it was a steer after the parts were no longer its own.)

Doug -- Thanks for the comment. You steered me to the Learnables -- and I am grateful. Even though I keep taking the first few lessons over and over because I lack self-discipline (see above). But I am probably picking up more in the repition of listening than I realize. I usually score 100% on the games -- but they are designed for children.

Babs -- Welcome back. Always nice to hear from you -- and your well-publicized "nice" ways.

Anonymous said...


1) Don't worry about "thinking" in Spanish - I think that too much empasis is placed on that notion;
2) Engage in a lot of conversations with folks who speak Spanish clearly - you'll understand them much more easily than bus drivers - in any country ;-)
3) Read, read, read in Spanish;
4) Children's books, children's games, children's conversations - they're excellent tools in learning a second langauge;
5) Get involved in a group where no one speaks English - when you have to communicate, you will;
6) Don't try to be perfect. Real communication will happen, no matter how imperfect your conjugations may be (no pun intended);
7) And finally, if you meet a nice Mexican lady, spend loads of time with her - your language abilities will flourish!


Steve Cotton said...

Thanks, Alee'. Good hints all the way round, I am sure.

My greatest difficulty right now is finding the time to set aside for doing all of these practical studies. I barely keep up on my regular reading right now. I know. It is a matter of priorities. And I tend to choose the priorities as they are.

Hollito said...

8. Never use an english menu in a restaurant in MX. Always ask for the spanish one.
This will force you to understand the spanish items on the menu - and the people in MX appreciate, when you try in Spanish.
Always worked fine for me, and the waiters, who always gave me the English menu (if available), were a bit surprised the most times. ;-)

Have a nice weekend! :-)

Steve Cotton said...

Hollito -- Great suggestion. On this trip I was never given the optyion of any menu other than Spanish menus. And that was fine with me.

Michael Dickson said...

Most menus in Mexico only come in Spanish.

Regarding your bus fare mix-up, if it´s an in-town bus, a local ride, just hand the driver a ten-peso coin. It´s not too big, and the likelihood of a local ride costing more than ten pesos is tiny. The driver will give you change.

This is much better than just holding your hand out with a fistful of coins for him to pick and choose.

Steve Cotton said...

Michael -- The fistful of pesos comment was my admission that I can far too easily turn into the stupid tourist. I was shocked when I did it. I think I was simply too hot to think clearly. The last time I took the same bus, I knew that the fare was about 10 pesos. I should have adopted the confident air of a regular rider.

Anonymous said...

Hola Steve,

One thing people never seem to mention is that learning a new language is like learning to play a musical instrument. It takes some work to be able to do even a respectable rendition of "Mary Had a Little Lamb," never mind "Flight of the Bumblebee." And it takes persistence and practice. And you can't cram. It has to be done over time.

Learning vocabulary and verb conjugations is like practicing scales and arpeggios; boring, but necessary.

Just stick with it, and eventually you'll manage. Making some Mexican friends is the best bet, though. And on a perhaps Machiavellian note, just keep in mind that some people will be inherently easier to understand than others. Try to make friends with those who speak slowly and clearly.

Finally, on numbers, they are clearly the hardest thing. Both my parents are Danish immigrants who arrived in 1958, though I was born in this country. Throughout my youth, whenever it came to calculations, despite speaking English fluently and better than most natives, my father would always mutter the calculations under his breath in Danish. I find myself doing about the same thing in Mexico. If I have to calculate something, I have to mutter the numbers in English. Can't do it in Spanish.

And I still have quite a bit of trouble hearing numbers in Spanish and translating that into some kind of comprehension. Sometimes even after I've been told two or three times, it just doesn't sink in.

And when transcribing a telephone number, I have to do it in a really basic manner.

Mexican: "yeah the number is seventy-two, forty-five, twenty eight, sixty five."
Me (very slowly): "Ok, so that's... seven... two... four... five... two... eight... six... five, right?"

Usually we need a couple go-arounds until I feel like I really have the number right.

So don't feel bad about numbers especially. Just keep practicing your non-numerical Spanish, and realize that some day you will be able to chat casually and confidently.


Kim G
Boston, MA

Steve Cotton said...

Kim -- Thanks for the encouragement. I will keep doing my scales and exercises. Like everyone else, I hated them when I was learning the piano. But, important they are.

Michael Dickson said...

Intending to learn Spanish while primarily socializing with other Gringos (which is what you almost certainly will do) is like driving a car with one foot on the brake.

Steve Cotton said...

Michael -- Thanks for the reminder. There are always a lot of tensions in all of our social goals. In this area, I am going to have to be very careful not to sink into a variation of my comfort zone in Salem. Who knows, I may follow your example.

Michael Dickson said...

Follow my example?? You´re gonna sell or give away everything, pack two suitcases and fly to Guadalajara? And catch a bus somewhere?

And find and marry a Mexican woman? Who does not speak English? You, a life-long bachelor boy?

And you´re gonna dodge Gringos almost 100 percent? (Sure brings on the español.)

It´s a grand plan, but I cannot see you doing that in a million years of Sundays.

But it´s a grand plan, and I recommend it to you. Sure served me well. I did not do a lick of significant homework before moving south.

Hey, it´s mid-morning on a weekday. Shouldn´t you be suing somebody?

Steve Cotton said...

It all sounds like a good plan. But I was specifically thinking of the marrying into the culture portion.

I have always thought of myself as being rather spontaneous. This little project has certainly put that notion to bed.

As I was walking Dying Dog around the block this morning, I realized he is a good symbol of my life in Salem. It has bee good, but it is taking its own sweet time in dying.

As for not doing my Lawyer Duties, sir, I am on my way to a meeting right now to do what lawyers do when not suing -- giving away some of my client's money.