George and I have successfully made our move to Barcelona, Spain. We arrived on July 3rd, got all set up in our apartment, and started our new life here. I, of course, started Spanish school six days later.
“Oh, good!” I thought. “Spanish will be so easy for me. I lived in Texas for way longer than I desired, but heard a lot of Spanish there. And when I was in medical school and residency, I had to take care of Spanish-speaking patients. So, the language is familiar to me. I should have no trouble at all.”
Well, I was wrong.
You see, actually studying a language for the first time when you already sort of “know” the language is harder than just learning it from scratch.
Two years ago, when we moved to Nice, France, I started from square one. I entered French school as a beginner and started with basic grammar. For about two months, I felt like I was living in a bubble. I couldn’t understand anything that anyone said. I heard their voices, but had no idea what they were saying. Little by little, I began to recognize words, then phrases, then topics of conversation, and then whole conversations. And, after about four months, I knew enough French to actually string together words and communicate in an intelligible way.
Well, after taking four hours of French every weekday and immersing myself in the French lifestyle for a full year, I was able to conduct my life and read my novels in French. I feel totally comfortable with it.
But for some strange reason, I speak French with a Spanish accent.
Given my familiarity with Spanish and my good accent, I thought that I’d learn Spanish in no time compared to how long it took me to learn French.
I’d taken a placement test online before moving to Spain. And, unfortunately, my understanding of French grammar helped me score higher than I should have.
But, when I arrived here in Spain, I kept speaking French instead of Spanish. How could that be? I thought I knew Spanish.
I was wrong.
On the first day of school, I had to take an oral exam. The young female Spanish instructor greeted me and we exchanged basic pleasantries. She noticed my good Spanish accent and said (in Spanish), “Obviously, you’ve studied Spanish before. Tell me about that.”
I hesitated, quickly translated my thoughts from French to Spanish, and said, “No … I’m a doctor, and I had some Spanish-speaking patients when I was in medical school.”
Then I went silent. All I could think about was French! I was ready to carry on an entire conversation in French. But Spanish? I just couldn’t come up with anything. Not knowing what else to say (or how to say it), I then launched into a series of phrases that I can say in perfect Spanish:
“¿Cuando fue la ultima regla, Señora?” (When was your last menstrual period, Ma’am?)
“¿ Ya se rompió su bolso del agua?” (Has your bag of water ruptured already?)
“¿Cuál es la frecuencia de sus contracciones?” (What is the frequency of your conractions?)
I rattled these off one after another fluently, as her eyes widened.
Then, I don’t know what got into me, but I decided to imitate a pregnant Spanish-speaking woman in labor. In a shrill, crying, moaning, painful, and pleading voice of a woman in pain, I animatedly said, “¡Aye, aye aye! ¡No puedo! ¡No puedo! ¡Por favor Señora Doctora, déme la medicina por el dolor! ¡Déme la epidural!” (Aye, aye, aye! I can’t take it! I can’t take it! Please, doctor ma’am, give me medicine for the pain! Give me an epidural!)
My oral exam didn’t continue for very long after that. She placed me in an intermediate level class.
It wasn’t that I didn’t understand the professor. I understood everything. It’s just that I’d never had basic Spanish grammar, and I didn’t know how to conjugate verbs correctly unless I was saying something that I’d learn in my medical training.
When it came to communicating anything medical in nature, I sounded like I spoke the language fluently. But talking about everyday, nonmedical things was completely foreign to me.
So, here I was, in a class with my 20-year-old classmates, unable to speak grammatically correct Spanish, but able to pronounce the words beautifully.
On my first day of class, the professor asked me about my previous study of the Spanish language.
I said again (in Spanish, of course), “I’ve never actually studied Spanish. I understand it because I had some patients who spoke Spanish when I was in medical school.”
He seemed surprised, and moved on. I think that, based on my accent, he assumed I’d do just fine.
He was wrong.
For the first two days, I would construct sentences with word sequences that went something like this:
“Gracias por su paciencia (Spanish) en parler avec moi (French). Aprendaba el francés (Spanish – incorrect tense) il y a (French) dos años y (Spanish) j’utilise (French) palabras (Spanish) françesas au lieu des (French) palabras españolas (Spanish) quelquefois (French).”
This is supposed to mean:
“Thank you for your patience in speaking with me. I learned French two years ago and I use French words instead of Spanish words sometimes.”
Periodically, I’d shake my head, say “Pardonnez-moi” (which is French), and then say in perfect Spanish, “Everything in my head is French!”
I just know that all those 20-year-olds thought I was crazy. I knew that I had converted to speaking French when they furrowed their brows in confusion mid-way through my comments.
When you learn a language step-wise, starting at the beginning, you learn all the nuances, and the little things to be careful about. Sometimes, if you say something using just one incorrect word, it really changes the meaning of what you’re saying. I sort of got myself into an awkward situation in France when I said to a guy at the gym, “I missed you.” I used the informal rather than the formal form of “you.” And that one little mistake changed my “I missed you” to “My heart yearns for you,” or “I can’t live without you.” That’s when he attempted to kiss me!
So, on the third day of Spanish school, I made the mistake of saying “Tengo calor!” (I have heat!) when what I meant to say was, “I’m hot.” The other students chuckled, and I realized that I’d said this incorrectly. Then I remembered that there was something particular about how to say, “It’s hot,” but I couldn’t recall exactly what that particularity was. So, I nervously (mis)corrected myself and said, “Estoy caliente!” (I’m sexy!) The class just roared.
I knew I was making things worse, and I just had to redeem myself. So, when the professor said, “Hace calor,” (It’s hot), I shook my head and launched into a perfect, literally- and grammatically- correct explanation of menopausal hot flashes, saying that that’s what I was talking about.
You see, I don’t know the basics; yet I can communicate beautifully about hot flashes and menopause!
I really think it was easier to learn French. Since I knew nothing to begin with, I only used what I had learned. My assumption that I already know some Spanish is only getting me into trouble.
It reminds me of the time I took dance lessons.
I really cannot dance … at all! I have great fine motor skills, but not even a speck of gross motor skills, and absolutely NO rhythm. Once, I decided that I’d give dance lessons a try … just to see if there was any hope for me at all when it came to dancing. I hired a private instructor and told her from the beginning that I would probably be the worst student she’d ever had. I even gave her permission to cancel the lessons and declare that it was absolutely impossible for me to learn how to dance. She laughed and thought I was kidding.
She was wrong.
I proceeded to have a private dance lesson with her once a week. After about ten weeks, she said, “Barbie, I’m amazed. You really are absolutely the worst student I’ve ever had! But … you listen! Since you know you can’t dance, you listen and do exactly what I say. So you really have learned to dance a little. It takes you longer to learn than it takes other people. But those who think they can dance already don’t listen, and they don’t do what I say. I’m really proud of you.”
I didn’t take any more dance lessons after that. And … I still cannot dance!
But when it comes to learning a language, I think her explanation makes perfect sense. I’d be better off if I knew no Spanish at all. Often, when I think I know enough to say something, I embarrass myself.
So, to top off the last day of my first week of school, I unintentionally entertained the class again. We were talking about fast food. The teacher mentioned something about a student who had completely forgotten about a McDonald’s hamburger he had left in his backpack. And when he found it weeks later, it looked just like it did when he bought it.
I spoke up, intending to say, “That’s because there are a lot of preservatives in fast food.” But what I actually said was, “”That’s because there are a lot of condoms in fast food!” Who would have thought that the Spanish word for preservatives is “conservante” rather than “preservativo?”
All I can say is that I’ve begun Spanish classes with a bang. I think I need to slow down and start at the beginning.