Saturday, July 15, 2023

Learning Spanish in Mexico

I've been asked twice in Mexico how it's possible I've gotten this far into the country without being fluent in Spanish. In both cases, I was having some language difficulties and an English speaker stepped in to help. I no doubt would have gotten my tacos or been able to buy my fruit eventually without their help, but they were surprised I got as far as I did. 

I'm learning Spanish. I don't know it. I don't not know it. Estoy aprendiendo espanol.  I know enough Spanish to get things done and armed with a translation app on a phone with a local SIM card (because AT&T sucks), I can get the vocabulary I need. On my own a couple weeks ago I was eating at restaurants, I got gas, I bought two car batteries at an auto parts store and had them installed, I went grocery shopping, and I even got my oil changed at the local mechanic. 

Sometimes interactions are smooth and predictable and other times I have to hand my phone to the person I'm talking to and ask them to type what they're saying. It's much easier if you've got time and you're not rushed. You have to be willing to screw up. Occasionally I'll find someone who knows as much English as I know Spanish and we'll gush over each others abilities. Oh, you're English is very good and my Spanish is bad. Oh no, you're doing very well speaking Spanish! We'll bond over finding a crack in the language barrier.

Our last night in Mexico City we ate pizza at a local restaurant and all three occupied tables were speaking English. In a place like Mexico City, every language is spoken. I followed a group of French tourists through the archeological museum and watched when their French speaking tour guide spent extra time on an artifact. He knew what artifacts were important. When they were gone, I would pull out my translation app and snap a photo so I could translate the Spanish to English. "Ahh, that's why he spent so much time on this." In a language fluid environment like Mexico City, this is pretty common. But showing up language limited in a small town can freak people out a bit.

I was at a small produce store a couple days ago in our local town. I brought my fruit up to the counter and pulled out my wallet. This is the universal sign of I am ready to check out. In a supermercado, a large super market, the bored checkout person would ring you up without a word, but in a small town market, there was conversation. I assume it was something like "Did you need any help finding anything or are you ready to check out? This exceeded my language skills and along with the road noise impairing my ability to hear, I was instantly out of my depth. In retrospect, it's what I might have said in my own store.

In the past I would often just go along with something like this, "Si." Yes, let's move this interaction forward. However, I've learned this isn't always helpful, I don't learn anything, and I occasionally get exactly what I don't want. Instead I said, "No entiendo." I don't understand. This resulted in the nightmare scenario of the clerk saying in Spanish, "Hey everyone, this guy doesn't speak Spanish!?" The customers in the store gathered round, they asked if anyone spoke English, and a slightly inconvenienced customer asked that question in English. "How did you even get here without Speaking Spanish?" Ugh.

I drove south. That's how I got here.

Embarrassing situations like this threaten to erase the ten days of successfully fumbling by myself with Spanish, the shopping, restaurants and oil changes. Maybe next time I'll be better prepared, ready to check out with a phrase of my own, like Estoy listo para pagar. I'm ready to pay. Or just Estoy listo. Or maybe in time I'll become more familiar with the Spanish equivalent of "Did you need any help finding anything or are you ready to check out?"

I've been working through the language program Duolingo for about three years and 60 language units. I don't recommend it, and that's because they have a very tiny selection of speaking options. If you want to learn to speak Spanish, practice speaking Spanish. Duolingo fails here. They have an excellent interactive Spanish section where you travel to Mexico City and talk with some students, but you can blow through that in about a week. I've been working with the program for over three years, in anticipation for this trip (along with two other shorter ones we took). 

My plan is to come back to Mexico, fairly soon, and do a language intensive one on one that includes immersion when I'm not in class. Immersion sounded scary before this trip, but it's what I do every day here. Only with immersion will I understand the grocer, including cutting through all the road noise, the occasional muffled speaker with a mask on, and the fact my hearing isn't getting any better. That's really learning Spanish in Mexico.

En el autobus

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