Monday, June 22, 2009

challenge of a new language

Mexico is the land of professional wrestling.

And I have been wrestling with Spanish as earnestly as Jacob wrestled with the angel.

Except -- that is not really true. Even though I desperately need to know far more Spanish than I do, I keep floating along.

Let me catalog some very practical problems that have arisen because I do not know Spanish.

  • When Jiggs appeared, literally, to be on his last legs in May, I could not find an English-speaking veterinarian to explain Jiggs's symptoms. A fellow blogger found an English-speaking veterinarian in Manzanillo, an hour drive away. I pay American rates for his care.

  • I shop in the local vegetable and fruit market. I know the names of most of the produce. But I cannot speak enough Spanish to ask about new varieties and how to prepare them.

  • Numbers still baffle me. I have no trouble asking how much something costs. But, I need the clerk to write down the total so I can understand the number. No one mocks me, but it is a nuisance.

  • Marta, the maid who cleans the house I sit, speaks no English. After cleaning on Saturday, she came back to the house almost frantic. I could not understand her concern. We needed to grab one of the local property managers, who was pedaling by on her bike, to translate. Marta had lost the money I had paid her. For her, that was a disaster. We were able to fix the problem. But I should have been able to do that on my own.

Living in Melaque is not like living in the areas of Mexico where expatriates congregate.

Melaque is a tourist town. But it is a town for Mexican tourists. There is no premium for English speakers in the shops because very few shoppers speak English.

That is the practical reason why I need to learn Spanish: to be understood I need to speak the lingua franca.

But there is an existential reason, as well. Not learning Spanish will leave me in the role of a permanent tourist -- no matter how long I live here. I will be an absolute outsider looking in.

I also know that learning Spanish will not turn me into a cultural Mexican, any more than simply moving to Quebec would make me French-Canadian.

At best, I can learn to communicate in Spanish and be a part of the language community.

I have picked up a lot of Spanish simply by listening to the language as it is spoken, by working my way through my Spanish software, and by using the Spanish dictionary that Teresa gave me as a traveling gift.

I have the advantage of Marta being at the house three days a week. She teaches me new words when I ask.

Jiggs has been a big draw for Mexican children on the beach. They run up to him to pet him -- I think because he is so large. I have learned quite few words from them.

The conversation usually follows a normal pattern about whether he bites, how old he is, how big he is, whether he is a boy or a girl, why he walks so funny. Strangely, I have no confidence issues when talking with the children.

Yesterday I talked about the connections I am making with the few expatriates that have remained in Melaque for the summer. All of them speak Spanish to a degree.

So, here is what I intend to do.

You already know that I want to set up a rotating potluck. I need to ensure that some of the Mexican residents I know are invited. Most of them are functionally bi-lingual. We could learn from one another through conversation.

I need to be more diligent in using my Spanish software. I allowed my recent magazine treasure trove to distract me.

A local businessman offers conversational Spanish courses for expatriates. I am going to give it a try.

If that does not work, there is a professional course available in La Manzanilla. It is a bit too late in the afternoon for my "schedule." But I think I can work around it.

I brought my DVD collection with me to Mexico. Most of the movies either have a Spanish soundtrack or Spanish subtitles. I thought this would be an easy way to pick up some structure. Unfortunately, I have not had an opportunity to use my laptop to try any of my DVDs. But it is a resource for the future.

And then there is Marta. She is here often enough that I can put what I learn into practice without fear of embarrassing myself. She will gladly correct me when I need it, and that is often.

So, there it is. Melaque is a great environment for me to learn Spanish. I suspect that it is much better than one of the expatriate enclaves.

I have at least six more months to take advantage of the linguistic environment Melaque affords. I don't want to waste it.


Felipe said...

Marta "lost" the money you paid her? If she "loses" it again, you´ll know what´s up.

Won´t you?

Taking Spanish lessons of any kind is an excellent idea.

Anonymous said...

o.k. steve, call it tough love but here it is. you've been in mexico for 2 months, you've gone through quite a lot in that time, but it is definitely time to get on the ball with the spanish. i hope you will follow through on what you've said. taking the class is an excellent idea but also follow it up with your software-the more effort you put into it, the better. you were too busy to study while still in salem, although that would have been the ideal time to start, but now you have lots of time on your hands, so what better way to use it than to study?

espero que no te enojes conmigo por ser tan franca.

translation. i hope you won't be upset (mad) at me for being so frank.

and one more thing, don't be embarrassed about making mistakes, it's only normal. someday you can look back and laugh at some of the funny things you say.

have a great day!


Calypso said...

We live in an area where no one speaks English. On occasion we meet up with one of the few gringos but 98% of the time we are amongst the locals that have not a clue about English.

Of course I have a major advantage over you in that Anita speaks conversational Spanish (about a C average) so we get along pretty well.

I have one friend that works with me often repeating what I said more correctly or helping me understand - he is a patient fellow.

I watch some movies, sports, and news in Spanish - this helps. I don't have great ambitions to learn Spanish - lazy in that regard I suppose. The numbers come with transactions. I am doing better than a number of my gringo friends and not as well gauged to other gringo friends.

I know two guys that speak virtually NO Spanish that are married to Mexican women that speak NO English - they are happy - go figure ;-)

Like you I hope to get better and assume I will over time - but no schools for this hombre - it just isn't in the cards.

I have made great inroads into learning to build in metric as well as buying and preparing food in metric - I think the U.S. is wrong in having never adopted the metric system - it is easier and more logical.

Give yourself time - it will sink in. I am very attached lately to the Google translator. I sit with a friend or two and we talk and assist each other in understanding using Google translate - might help with Marta.

Steve Cotton said...

Felipe -- I read a tale yesterday of a wise man, who lives in the central highlands. He was asked to contribute to a project to improve the street behind his house. Even though he may have been misled as to the cost, he concluded: "We believe in doing our civic duty." It was in that same spirit that I reacted to the lost wages.

Teresa -- How could I be upset at a clear statement of facts? But, I do wish that I had those oodles of spare time you talk about. I go to bed every night realizing I did not accomplish several things during the day that I needed to do. (For instance, I need to watch a 5-hour DVD for my continuing legal education credit. I have had it for over two weeks, and it sits here unwatched.) I suspect we are all in the same position our entire lives. Plenty to do, but we need to make choices. I am starting the Spanish class this morning. Apparently, it starterd last week.

Steve Cotton said...

Calypso -- Living alone has its own issues. I can go long periods (days) without anyone talking to me. I know some of my married friends would consider that paradise. But it is not good for developing language skills.

Steve Cotton said...

Paul -- I intend to start dong some exploring. I am restricted a bit on how far I can go by the dog's travel issues. But I will get something worked out.

glorv1 said...

Well don't feel bad Steve, I am supposed to speak Spanish fluently but I left most of it at home a long time ago. Oh I can read it, write it, somewhat and do speak it, but I have forgotten some words.

Bueno, yo voy para exercisio (I think that's the way exercise is spelled) y despues me vengo (I think) pa la casa para llavar la ropa y planar lo que voy hacer para la cena.(I think):)

I'll be darned if I know if that is correct or not but hey, I gave it a stab. You'll learn, just keep trying. My regards to Mr. Precious Jiggs.

Steve Cotton said...

Gloria -- We can trudge along together.

Felipe said...

Mi amiguito, let me provide details on the "lost wages" which, I assume, you repaid, though you did not say that specifically.

I´m writing it here instead of in an email because maybe it will be of use to some others.

This routine is so old in Mexico that it has hair in its ears. A popular variation is: "I was robbed."

The point, of course, is that the "victim" gets the money a second time somehow.

My deceased brother-in-law was fond of the "I was robbed" routine when confronted by creditors. A coworker of my wife´s when she worked in Mexico City would often get "robbed" when going out to lunch after getting her salary on payday. She would return in tears, and the coworkers would be asked to pony up what they could. And they did, ever time.

You don´t wanna look stingy, of course.

But "losing" the money, accompanied by anxious histrionics, is common too, and it is a story which requires a little less detail.

However it´s used, the intent is to fatten one´s wallet, and to reduce yours.

Perhaps Marta really did lose her money. I doubt it, but let´s say she did. But if she loses it a second time . . .

Babs said...

My son in his infinite wisdom said to me, "IF its important enough you'll figure out a way". It has sustained me many times.

There is a woman who teachs intensive Spanish in Melaque. Find her, do it intensively and you'll be amazed at how much you have learned in a month, but you have to be dedicated.

That Melaque forum group will know where to find her.

lavachickie said...

Yea! I was reading your adventures wondering which category you'd settle into: long term tourist, or someone who truly wants to have a full experience of another culture.

It's rare to find someone who doesn't appreciate the fact that you are learning their language. So don't worry about making mistakes.

Larry in Mazatlan said...

We discovered that pot lucks are not necessarily a Mexican thing. Gringo, yes. Our street parties were an education. The street is blocked off, live music is brought in and every family sets up and decorates a table at the curb. Around the appointed hour, mas o menos, food is brought to the tables by each family. The family then eats together, chatting with their neighbors. After eating the dancing starts and we all mingle and chat, offering the remaining food to each other.

All I'm saying is don't be offended or get your feelings hurt if you don't get a big response to your idea of a pot luck. Maybe your area is different, but I don't think so from talking to my neighbors. As was explained to me, "How could Rosalia know what Tadeo likes, since Maria usually cooks for him?" The lady of the house taking care of her family is a very big thing here.


Laurie said...

Don't fret too much. Talking to children is an excellent idea. I learned a lot from the children at my school, including insults, profanities, etc! At least I know what is being said to me now! I would caution you to not rely on your maid too heavily. She may take advantage of her role as your teacher. I am not overly suspicious in general, but this advice is something I have heard over and over. My Spanish is still poor, but I just jump right in. Today I am meeting with 2 different people with no English skills. I have no qualms they wil understand me, even though my Spanish is not very good. Also google translator helps me to get my thoughts on paper before I have to speak to someone about something important or lengthy in Spanish.

Nancy said...

I'm glad you're into a Spanish class. All of my very hard work before was a drop in the bucket compared to what I learned in class.

The thing is you really DO need to know tenses in order to understand people. For example, you might understand if someone said "Voy a la casa de mi papá" but would you understand "Ayer, fui a la casa de mi papá." Or "Espero que ir a la playa" People joke about how they are learning Spanish but they USE in the present tense only. I think it's impossible to do that in the real world. Maybe you can speak in the present tense but you need to know some of the other ones in order to understand people.

I am way better at understanding what people say than speaking myself. I constantly have brain freeze and it makes me so mad!

Good luck to you. You know if you need textbooks or books like 501 Spanish verbs or something you can buy them from Amate Books in Oaxaca or Merida online and the shipping is minimal.

Constantino said...

My friend, I may be getting this all wrong, but it seems that you have really not made a commitment of 1) retirement, and 2) Settling down in Mexico.
I fully understand the quest and satisfaction for knowledge, but am puzzled by your statement of "Continuing legal education credit" studies....I was under the impression that you have retired, quit, stopped working, but yet you are keeping your updates for continued certification for your license or work related continuance?
If you were serious of settling down here, you would have taken more strides into the language lessons....but that is just my observation.
I have been wrong before and will be again.

Many people are satisfied living in Mexico speaking a handful of words in order not to starve or be thirsty. Many also find solace in living in communities with like minded residents. You have kept your home in Oregon, for some reason which maybe the key to your lack of immersion into the journey living here.
It is not easy, it is challenging, it is upsetting at times, it is opposite to a lot of things that you are use to and there are certain things that will never be or become logical or reasonable.
I know that you know all that, and I hope you make your decision and make it soon because the longer you wait the more difficult it will be.
I know you are a wise man, you analyze all your moves like a skilled chess player, but it just seems a tad unusual not to build a solid foundation for your "life South of the Border"
That is my opinion, and I am usually wrong 50% of the time....

Constantino said...

Steve....,Felipe brings up a point I am sure you have thought about but perhaps not fully considered.
Again, please do not take this personally, but we have had experience with domestic workers for many years and sadly you can only trust a single digit percentage of them.

"Rich Gringos" have been etched into the growing minds of the people for many generations , I had a maid while in California, and she came with references and etc. After 5 years things changed.
I hate to suggest this but you may for your own piece of mind do some tests on your hired workers. Leave unconspicuous bills or change and see if the temptation is too great to avoid.
I sometimes wondered why there was so much security and secrecy at some of my Mexicans' friends homes, only to finally discover that the honesty and integrity is not as prevalent as we would normally be accostomed to.
You hate to live always looking out over your shoulder, but poverty and envy of material things with the opulent lifestyles seen on US TV, can ruin honest people.
Just be careful and wise, and trust only those have earned your trust..There are many sad stories that abound in the sunny land down here.

Anonymous said...

You seem like a such a nice man...why do you torture yourself so? (this truly is a most reflectively tortured blog, and I read a load of 'em!) If the shoe doesn't fit, why wear it?

What's so dull about retiring in the US? You can always close up shop for 3-4 months at a time and "play" south of the border, choosing your seasons and locales to fit your mood.

Being a snow bird ain't so bad, my friend.

Joe S. said...

Okay you guys are really intense today. So much so that I'm neglecting my patients so I can figure out how to comment on the fray.

The possibilty of a pay scam is unsettling.

The serious study of spanish rather than the "have a couple of drinks and speak english LOUDLY and SLOWLY", wellll I knew that wasn't this crowd, but its daunting to consider a second life with a second language.I barely speak english correctly any more.

The "days without talking could be paradise" Amen brother!!!

Oregon Real Estate Is Dead. Four of the ten houses in my culdesac are for sale and no amount of pressure from the divorce, job relocation, or retirement plans are causing them to sell(2 yrs on market.Quite a change from previous high end market.

The good news for gringos, it looks like the US dollar continues to buy more pesos.

Anonymous said...

There is nothing wrong,being outsider looking in,Is there?
as long as you can able to choose..
I do not think,you are tortured man at all but a nice man indeed!
min from Va

mcm said...

Hey Steve --
You're doing great! You've lived, by yourself, in a foreign country for two months, and you've survived. All the advice you're getting is good (especially taking classes, something I've never done!), but try not to fall into the trap of comparing yourself to other is a sure road to depression.
It may take you years to learn adequate Spanish -- or maybe you'll be self-sufficient in a year. It's not a race, and, you can be committed to your life here without being fluent. Sure it's frustrating, and it is a huge help if you have a bilingual friend that you can run to in an emergency.

I find that I learn a lot from reading the local paper. Not on the internet, and not using translator programs or on-line dictionaries. Sitting down in the morning with a cup of coffee and reading entire articles. I'm more of a written word than auditory learner, so perhaps that's why seeing the language sticks with me more -- I can hear a word/phrase many times, and not "get it", until I see it written in context. Plus, it's not as boring as reading lessons, since you're also finding out about life in your new home. Another plus is that it gives you something to talk about, other than the weather and other favorite expat topics!
good luck!

Steve Cotton said...

Felipe -- I understand your concern. You do not want people taking advantage of my good nature. I fully understand that a possible option is that I was set up. I have been there before in the United States where people I have assisted have obviouosly concocted stories (usually very improbable tales) to separate my money from me. The irony is that I would have given them the money without the charade of the story. (Maybe thieves salve their conscience thus.) In Marta's case, I have no doubt that she lost the bank note. Was I obligated to make things right? Of course not. Nor did she ask me to. The fact that I did, though, does not make me naive. Either way, she could use the money. The economy here is almost unimaginably bad.

Babs -- I started my course this morning. The fellow who does the teaching seems to have a good method. There are only two students.

Lavachickie -- I am well past the point of feeling self-conscious of my attempts to speak Spanish. I have never found any of the languages I have studied to be easy to learn. I just need to persevere.

Larry -- I noticed something similar in Oregon just before I left. A number of people at work refused to eat anything someone had cooked at home because it was not prepared in a certified kitchen. Frankly, I think that attitude is based more on the germ hysteria that seems to infect a lot of NOBers.

Laurie -- One of my problems is that I do not yet have enough words in my vocabulary to jump right in. I think I know a word -- and then it is simply gone. Like fairy dust. Of course, the same thing happens in English -- frequently.

Nancy -- I have plenty of resource books. I just need to get my nose into the vocabulary -- and do it.

Constantino -- You are half correct. I have not yet made a commitment to settling down in Mexico. But I never intended to settle anywhere. At this point, I find no adventure in settling. That is why I intend to keep moving about every 6 months.

As for being committed to retiring: I am. However, I am going to keep my bar membership alive. That means paying dues and taking lots of courses to report to the union stewards at the bar association. I suspect I will never use it. But it is there.

I had fully intended to sell the house before I left Salem. But the market is so bad (and it is my medical fund account) that I did not want to waste the money by selling right now. It is an annoyance having it as an expense drain. However, it affords a friend a place to stay. So, it turns out to be a good cause in itself.

I doubt I will be ready to commit to settling anywhere for a decade or so. I enjoy the idea that I can pick up and move anywhere when I choose. And that is bout as retired as I can get.

Anonymous -- OK. This one baffles me. "Torture?" I cannot even imagine where that comes from. I am having a great time. Learning a nerw language is certainly not torture. It is difficult. But so were piano lessons and trying to train my dog. Both of which turned out to be disasters. But they were adventures. And that is what I am after. I have no desire to be comfortable. If I did, I would be living in Salem and working at my job that offered what most people would love.

Joe -- It certainly is a lively discussion today.

Min -- Well, thank you very much for the compliment. I will confess to being analytical. And then I usially ignore my own analysis. That is probably more tortuous for my readers -- and maybe that is what Anonymous meant.

MCM -- We must have about the same learning style. I need the precision of the written word to understand. My ear is either not well-tuned or my brain blocks out some sounds, but I seldom hear a word the way it is written. If I can see it in print, I can then use it in a sentence. I envy people who can almost pefectly parrot phrases. I am not one of them. To me, language is a mathematical problem. I need all of the elements to create a sentence.

Billie said...

Steve, I'm the worst example ever but I know that my friends who are doing well with their spanish have taken classes and also have a tutor several days a week. One couple had a tutor 6 mornings a week for 2 hours. I'm sure they studied and listened to tapes as well. But in 6 months they were speaking passable spanish. Not well enough to carry on conversations about politics or literature but well enough to take care of their day to day business.

Good luck.

Steve Cotton said...

Billie -- Thanks for the encoiuragement. Simply being able to carry on a day-to-day conversation would make me happy.

zannie said...

I have found that watching movies in English with Spanish subtitles might gain me a word here or there, but is not all that helpful. I thought that watching with both Spanish audio and Spanish subtitles would be great, but in fact, the translations are not identical so it ends up being very distracting, to a point that it just doesn't work for me.

I have found that watching a movie I already know quite well with the Spanish audio is helpful. I already know the general content of what they're saying, so it's easier to figure out what the specific words are than if I didn't know the movie. Kids' movies are another good option, since they don't use sophisticated vocabulary.

Anonymous said...

Hola Steve,

I agree with Nancy above about the verb tenses. They are absolutely critical. I spent some time with Mexican friends sort of speaking Spanish for some time before having mastered verb tenses. And I'd always be struggling to convey some idea like, "We shouldn't have parked the car there." Or, "Wouldn't it be easier to go that way?" I finally hired a tutor and we spent a year doing a forced march on verb tenses. Grueling, kind of boring, lots of rote memorization, but absolutely crucial if you really want to speak the language.

As for numbers, well, if your experience is like mine, they will remain a near-perpetual frustration. I still mix up sesenta and setenta (60 and 70) pretty often.

As an aside, my parents are immigrants from Denmark, and my dad's an engineer with a bent for home construction projects. Throughout my entire youth, he was constantly doing measurements and calculations under his breath in Danish while using English for all other purposes.

Some things, once wired into your brain one way are very hard to change.


Kim G
Boston, MA
Where we occasionally find ourselves in the very weird position of being able to think of a word in Spanish, but not English. Spooky.

Steve Cotton said...

Zannie -- I need to hear and see. Hearing helps, and that is the bsaic methoid of learning language. But I need to see the letters.

Kim -- I understand the need to learn the verb tenses. But I need to get some nouns into the memory bank, or knowing the subjunctive will do me little good.

mdoneil said...

Steve- You took with you the most necessary traveling essential, a good attitude.

I found an easy way to learn a different language is to not use verbs when thinking of sentences, then you have all the words and can save the thinking for conjugation.

Lunch special please. I bus to Guadalajara. Lesion foot infected... see start out with the words and then learn the verbs. Everybody will understand you without the verbs.

Sure they think you are a bit of a nut, but I've never minded that.

Enjoy your rain, the plants will be happy.

Steve Cotton said...

Mdoneil -- That is the way I have learned every language. But that is also how children learn to speak. Verbs are the concerns of adults.

zannie said...

I'm the same way about needing to "see"; it's almost like I can't hear it unless I can see it. That is exactly why I found it so frustrating to have both the Spanish audio and subtitles on because of the different translations. What I was hearing was different from what I was seeing. It was a huge distraction for me. Perhaps it would not be for you. I choose to go with the audio rather than the subtitles because I don't want to be able to "fall back" on English audio, nor do I want to mute it altogether. And, there's a good argument that this sort of practice in listening comprehension is just what people like us with such a strong visual learning style need. It's not very good for learning grammar and vocabulary, but what good are grammar and vocabulary if you can't understand spoken Spanish?

Anyway, I just wanted to give you a heads up about the fact that using the Spanish on DVDs may not be as good of a tool as it seems, at least not at this point. They might be a better tool after you've got more grammar and vocabulary and are ready to work on listening comprehension. Or you might have a different experience than I have had and they might be a great tool right from the start...

Brian Barker said...

Hi Steve

I think we need a lingua franca for the World as well.

So which language should it be?

The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese and the Americans prefer Spanish. Yet this leaves Mandarin Chinese out of the equation.

Why not a neutral non-national language like Esperanto :)

You can see this at

Steve Cotton said...

Brian -- But you know the problem. Until enough people speak a language, it has no inherent value. Almost like houses in Detroit.