Sunday, August 11, 2019

sanding my consonants

We are our pasts.

At least, we live our lives as if what has shaped us continues to guide us.

In that respect, I am a classical conservative. We are born into a network of obligations (families, communities, institutions) that, in turn, provide order to our lives.

I have a friend, let's call him Josh, who had a rather troubled relationship with his father. Josh's dad was the quintessential American dad -- the guy who knew almost everything about every imaginable topic.  He knew how things operated, and, when they didn't, how to fix them.

Josh adored him. He would take every opportunity to watch his dad fix whatever needed fixing. But he always dreaded his dad would ask him to fetch something. Usually a tool. Josh usually had no idea what his dad wanted.

When asked for a 1/2" box-end wrench, Josh would likely retrieve a ball-peen hammer or a pair of pliers. Nobody had ever taught him the name for tools.

His dad would call him stupid. Eventually, he stopped watching his dad work.

I had my own Josh moment yesterday.

Dora was at the house performing her cleaning miracles. I had asked her to take a look at the cleaning supplies I had just bought at Sam's Club to see if we needed anything else for the house. We always do.

She inventoried the stash and said that we needed "liqua de agua." At least, that is what I thought she said. It could have been "lika de agua." I asked her to repeat the phrase. When I showed no recognition, she explained it was to clean the bathroom. She pointed at a bottle of toilet cleaner and recommended a specific shop in San Patricio.

So, off I went, The proprietress of the shop looked just as bewildered as I had when I told her what I wanted. She speaks Spanish and English, and we exhausted our mutual vocabularies until we decided what I needed was a bottle of Ajax cleanser.

Well, that was not what Dora needed. She went to the bodega and returned with what looked like a small piece of black construction paper.

The moment I touched it, I remembered buying some three or four years ago. It is very fine sand paper. Dora uses it to abrade the calcification that accumulates on the toilet ceramic.

What I heard as "liqua" or "lika" was actually "lija." "Lija de agua."

For most people, the toughest part of any new language is trying to figure out its spoken form. I can read most newspapers in Spanish because of my high school Latin classes. A lot of the grammar and vocabulary are similar. But, read the same article to me aloud, and I will miss a good portion of it.

I thought my greatest difficulty in speaking and listening to Spanish would be the vowels. But once I learned their sounds, they have turned out to be rather straight-forward.

It is the consonants that trip me up. Our German roots in English lead us to pronounce our consonants quite guttural. Especially, the explosive consonants that turn into mere puffs in Spanish. 

I had a perfect opportunity to clarify the word with Dora while I was standing there. But, like Josh, I scurried off hoping that somehow I would return with the correct item.

Why didn't I clarify my confusion? Probably, because I thought I had enough information to complete my mission.

But I think it was something related to my Y chromosome. It may be a cliché, but guys are adverse to asking too many questions. At least, I know I am. And that life-instilled trait comes with a cost.

In this case, the cost was small. I simply walked down the street to our local hardware store and bought five sheets of "lija de agua."

So, what do I do with this new tidbit of knowledge?

First, I should accept it for what it is. I have been indulging in a bit of hubris lately about how my Spanish skills have improved. Most of the compliments come from my Mexican friends. But, it is not absolutely true. If I can miss the subtle difference between a "k" and a "g," I still have a long way to go. (and, no, I have not dismissed the possibility that age-related hearing loss may be a contributing cause.)

The second lesson is far simpler, but probably more difficult to implement. I need to start asking people to clarify points when I am not certain what they just said. I suppose that could also apply to my conversations in English.

I may be able to learn new subjects, but I am still a product of my life.

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