Saturday, July 05, 2008

why I can't speak greek -- o español

I lived for a year in Greece back in the 1970s. I have little to show for it. A few photographs. A peasant shirt I can no longer wear. And a Greek grammar book. If I look hard, I could probably find a little Greek dictionary.

The two books were my companions wherever I went. I took lessons from a beautiful young woman -- Sia was her name. I read Greek newspapers. I studied -- hard. And I was great at reading the newspaper, at translating from my grammar book, at reading almost anything in Greek.

What I could not do was speak it. In my village, an older woman ran a restaurant. She spoke no English, but she was one of the kindest souls I have ever met. I could listen to her and understand almost everything she said. But when I tried to speak Greek -- well, it was all Greek to me -- and her. (I was going to apologize for diving into that cliché temptation, but you would have all done the same.) She simply could not understand me.

I don't think I felt self-conscious -- not with her. The fear that adults have of making a mistake in the presence of another adult.

However, most Greeks and Parisians have at least one thing in common: they do not like anyone misusing their language, and, if it happens in their presence, they feel free to mock the linguistic miscreant.

I once stopped at a gas station in the afternoon and greeted the elderly Greek men from central casting that sit in front of almost every open doorway from Athens to Patras. "Kαλημέρα," said I. They stared and started laughing aloud, repeating my mistake louder with each repetition. The man I took as the ringleader fixed me with a Socratic stare and informed me that it was past noon, and I should either say "
καλό απόγευμα" -- or say nothing. It was the nothing that stung.

I am reading David Sideras's latest book: When You are Engulfed in Flames. He has written several essays on his inability to learn and speak French -- even though he lives in France. He writes that he has internal conversations where he wishes that he could put together a complex sentence like: "Tell me, Jean-Claude, do you like the glaze I've applied to my shapely jug?" Instead, he writes, he will often resort to reducing anything complex into something like:

"Look at the shapely jug."
"Do you like the glaze?"
"I did that."

When I read that I literally roared in laughter. Startling the dog. I know exactly how he feels.

I have started my Spanish lessons again. I have learned all types of interesting information. I now know the doctor eats the bread. (El médico come el pan.) That the girl has a ball (L
a chica tiene una pelota.) That the ball is blue (La pelota es azul.)

What I want to know is how I go about getting the doctor to talk to the girl about whether John Locke had a good grasp on the intricacies of property ownership or what are the odds of a recession in Veracruz?

Of course, what I really want to do is to be able to speak Spanish with the same fluency I have in English. I may as well wait until I invent the perpetual motion machine. It just is not going to happen. My goal is to be able to talk with my neighbors in Mexico. And I know I will not gain that fluency until I actually put my few skills to practical use.

For the moment, I will put the mocking Greek grandfathers out of my mind -- and be happy for the girl and her blue ball, and that the doctor has his daily bread.


Babs said...

Well, Steve, The good thing here is that they appreciate your trying even when you say something ridiculous like I did while at Pemex. "Limpio mi manzanas" instead of "limpio mi ventanas". They did smile but NEVER would they make fun of you........It wasn't till I drove off that I realized what I had said and had a great laugh!

Brenda said...

Thank goodness the people here do not mock me for my poor language skills, if they did I would never open my mouth. They are very forgiving and understanding of my gaffes.

Tom and Debi said...

Ah Steve - Have no worries. The Mexicans are so kind, and are so enthusiastic that you are trying to learn/speak their language. They never make fun and always try to help. Even when I apologize because I know I am saying things horribly wrong, they smile and say no worries, they understand what I mean. How kind and caring is that.

1st Mate said...

Steve - I think you'll find Mexicans a lot more compassionate about your Spanish. They may offer corrections or may even just nod as though they understand. But the only person who has laughed at my Spanish is my Spanish teacher, who has special dispensation. Besides, she'll translate my gaffe in English and then I get a good laugh too.

Anonymous said...

I have tried many times as an adult to learn Spanish. I paid for lessons at the local Berlitz School just a block from my office. I managed to miss more lessons than I attended due to work responsibilities. Then several years ago I took private lessons with a woman from the office and her daughter. Our teacher was a former Berlitz teacher from Mexico City. After three months I asked her if we could just work on some conversational Spanish instead of conjugating verbs over and over.
My goal is that every trip I take to Mexico I learn at least three new words. I am doing pretty good with that even if I can’t use those words in a comprehensive sentence.

Theresa in Mèrida said...

If you want to discuss philosophy etc, seriously, you will need to start reading some serious Spanish literature also you will have to hang with a very different crowd than you will probably find in your beach town. Most foreigners learn enough Spanish to get by and then stop. Enough Spanish to be considered fluent and read the daily paper is probably 600 words (but in all the verb tenses).

The Babaefish translation of "What I want to know is how I go about getting the doctor to talk to the girl about whether John Locke had a good grasp on the intricacies of property ownership or what are the odds of a recession in Veracruz?"
is:¿Sobre qué yo quiero saber soy cómo ir alrededor a llamar al doctor hablar con la muchacha si John Locke tenía un buen asimiento en las intrincaciones de la propiedad o cuáles son las probabilidades de una recesión en Veracruz?
Which is utter gibberish by the way until you reach "con la muchacha" then the translation is just fine.
I would probably say that sentence as "¿Que quiero saber is como induzco al doctor ha tratar con la muchacha sobre la tema de si John Locke tenía un buen asimiento en las intrincaciones de la propiedad o cuáles son las probabilidades de una recesión en Veracruz?
Now my problem would be what to do with the answer. Asking questions in Spanish is easy, dealing with the answers is sometimes a challenge.

Steve Cotton said...

The difference between Greece (or that one incident) and Mexico has been amazing. My halting, faltering Spanish has always been welcomed -- seldom understood. On my last trip from the Manzanillo airport to La Manzanilla, I sounded like a mentally slow three year-old; pointing gleefully at objects and saying: "perrito," "cocos," "rio." You get the drift.

One of the nice things about Melaque is that I will be forced to learn Spanish -- or I will not eat or get much of anything else done. In this case, necessity will be the mother of comida.

Hollito said...

keep cool. Your spanish will get better every day you are in MX.
Even I am married to a chica de chilangolandia, my spanish is basic at all. But every time I come to MX, I can see how it gets better every day. After 3 weeks there I can manage to read the newspapers and understand most of it. Unfortunately my spanish skills vanish at the same speed when I am back in Krautland. :-(
One thing, for example, is to refuse to use the english menu and to use the spanish one instead.

3 words per trip? will take a while to become fluent in spanish this way. I often learn 3 new words in 10 minutes.
My wife is always angry because I mostly learn swear words that fast. *grin*

Steve Cotton said...

Hollito -- Like you, what I do not use, I lose. (Why doesn't that work with extra weight? I don't use it, and it still hangs around like a stray cat waiting to be fed.) In La Manzanilla, I did my best deaf-mute impression, but I wasn't fooling anyone. This trip, I will try to use what little I know. I certainly hope I run into a bread-eating doctor with a girl who has a blue ball.

jennifer j rose said...

David Sedaris.

Rest assured, you will hardly ever be called upon in Mexico to aver that the doctor eats bread or the girl plays with the blue ball. Or even asked where the library is or if meatballs are on the menu at the school cafeteria. For that matter, we Mexicans almost never discuss John Locke. You'll do just fine.

mexpat said...

My husband has gotten quite good at forming sentences without using verbs, such as "Que hora salida" which is literally "What Time Exit?" instead of asking "what time do I need to leave?"

As someone with many years of Spanish study under my belt, I find it amusing, but I encourage him to speak and make mistakes. If I do all the speaking, he'll never learn. Besides, he already knows more Spanish than he realizes (which I'm sure you do to) he just doesn't always know how to put it together into a proper sentence.

The biggest lesson I ever learned regarding learning a foreign language was just to lose my pride and talk!

Steve Cotton said...

Jennifer -- I may never need to wax eloquent on John Locke in Spanish, but I would like to be able to at least participate in the marvelous word play that Mexicans so love. I asked a Mexican waiter in La Manzanilla to explain a joke to me. The moment I said it, I was reminded of a libertarian event I attended in Portland. A good friend asked: "Steve, do you know how many libertarians it takes to screw in a light bulb?" I averred ignorance. "None. The market will take care of it." I had no more than politely chuckled when she began: "You see, Steve. Libertarians believe that the market ..." and continued in that vein for about 30 minutes -- 30 minutes that would have sent Ayn Rand screaming into the arms of the socialists. Remembering that episode, I realized I had done the same thing to the waiter: a joke explained is a joke ruined. Better that I understand the lingua franca.

Mexpat -- As you can see, your husband and I could probably have a very good conversation -- in our own version of Spanish. I will do almost anything in Oregon without regard to any sense of pride. I need to apply the same lesson to my Spanish.

islagringo said...

I have found that there are two types of Mexican: those that truly want to understand your Spanish and will bend over backwards to understand you. But the more common is the one who will just stare blankly at you, leaving tons of empty space between you. But you will never encounter anybody who makes fun of your attempts at speaking their least not to your face! (remember the hardware store incident I had? puppies for cement. Nobody laughed until I did and then the whole store exploded! Leaving me with a wonderful memory!)

Steve Cotton said...

Wayne -- When I get started on my Spanish in Melaque, I assure you I will have plenty of linguistic and social faux pas to relate.

Steve Cotton said...

Wayne -- When I get started on my Spanish in Melaque, I assure you I will have plenty of linguistic and social faux pas to relate.

Kazimiro said...

I like your writing style! Very humourous and engaging. Regarding Español, I have found immersion the best policy. Find yourself a place in Mexico where you will not run into gringos...such as the city of Puebla. Eventhough it is the fourth largest city there...I never ran into one in about three years. And they supposedly have great language schools.

When I first came to Mexico over 17 years ago, I used to sit on a bench in the zocalo in Oaxaca and start by saying Buenas dias to a local. Often an elderly type. They would ask the usual donde and such, then just keep going. I just nodded my head and repeated, si, si, si. One good phrase to learn in any new language is, I don't understand. No le entiendes...or no entiendo. Soon enough, if you keep at it, you can tell the doctor who eats bread, and the girl with the blue ball, all about John Locke.

Oh, I would also recommend you trade in the wife for a local gal. That helps to with the immersion. It is amazing what we will learn, when we have no other choice! Cuidate. Kazimiro