I was extremely disappointed with myself — yet again. Over the years for more times than I dare think about, I have challenged myself to Improve Your Spanish, Ana! I always thought it made more sense to build up the language I already had a basis in rather than study a new one. I mean, it would be very logical to study French, for example, since I’m living in Oh Canada. I’d even be able to understand the announcer on the French CBC radio station that I listen to almost exclusively — they play the best jazz and classical music. But, actually, one of the advantages of not knowing the language is that I don’t understand a word they’re saying in between songs. I briefly flirted with the idea of studying Italian. There used to be an Italian study group who met at the Tik Talk Cafe on Saturday mornings. I’d listen to them as I worked on Mediterranean Journey. Whatever they said sounded so sexy and exotic and Sophia-Lorenish to my ignorant ears. I’d imagine myself as the “bad” girl in Three Coins in The Fountain whispering dangerously in Rossano Brazzi’s ear. That image — and the desire to learn Italian — passed quickly.
No, Spanish it had to be. For more than 30 years, I’d been carrying around the same pocketful of Spanish words and phrases that I had gathered from my neighbors and from folks in the bars and stores when I lived in Benidoleig all those years ago. This meagre supply has been enough to fool people — sometimes — into thinking that I actually speak the language. Hah! My strategy has always been for me to start the conversation then I, at least, knew what the subject matter was and that it could be covered within my limited vocabulary. I fooled a lot of people that way — but never myself. Some would exclaim, “Tu hablas Espanol muy bien.” No, no, no, I’d modestly answer them, “solamente un poquito y muy feo” — “only a little and ugly-ly.” If I’d talked long enough, they’d discover what a fraud I was and switch to English.
Inevitably, every couple of years, I’d be inspired to take a class and work on my Spanish. This tradition started in D.C. and I carried it with me here to Toronto. It was usually September when the feeling would move me and I’d start looking in Continuing Education catalogues for Beginning Spanish classes. (I never took myself seriously enough to enrol in university or college classes, that’s for sure.) I think this fall movement towards improvement was a holdover of all those years of starting school in September. So, I’d find these classes which were usually taught by non-native speakers or people who hadn’t spoken their native language in years. The classes were always held in high schools in the evening and were packed with too many people speaking at various levels of bad Spanish. I’d usually make it until the third or fourth class and then, like clockwork, I’d make some kind of lame, but believable to me, excuse to quit –“Oh, I have too much overtime at the law firm.” Or “Gosh, it’s so dark and scary to walk home from the bus stop” (that was oh-so-true in D.C.). But usually it was just because I was overwhelmed by how much I didn’t know. So, my pocketful of words and phrases never got bigger.
But this time was different. I was starting in February, not September, and, I actually enrolled in a real, genuine, pay-lots-more-money ($$$) Spanish school. That alone, I thought, would ensure that I would not quit or be so lazy as to not study. But the real difference was this time I had a good reason to get cracking and speak Spanish better. The daughter of Gorgeous-Mexican-Hilda was getting married at the end of June. I had five months to Improve My Spanish so that I’d, hopefully, be able to say more than, “Hola, soy Ana,” “Muy bonita,” and “Gracias” at the reception. I even acknowledged to myself that, ‘Yo, girlfriend, you do know more Spanish than Beginner One!” So I enrolled in the Intermediatecourse for the first time. I thought I was ready.
For twenty weeks, I have faithfully made my way via street car and subway, to get to my Tuesday night classes. I’ve only missed one class in all that time and that was when the work on Mediterranean Journey took precedence over the subjunctive. Our instructor — the energetic, guapo, Columbiano, Carlos — would bounce into the classroom each week with a gregarious, “Chicos, como estan?” The first day he did it I was modestly shocked and immediately formed a “Who is this guy?” first impression. But, by the second week, I was smitten by his enthusiasm for the language. For two hours each week, Carlos would try to make learning a thousand new tenses in Spanish (I only moderately exaggerate) interesting and, more often than not, entertaining. I felt like I held my own most nights and tucked a few more nouns and pronouns and verbs into my pocket of Spanish words.
When the wedding came about, Hilda was not going to allow me to comfortably slip into English, not on her watch. No, she put me at the table with all of her Mexican friends and, I suspect, gave them instructions to only speak Spanish with Ana. They coaxed words and phrases out of me, insisted that I partake in conversations and when the music started, got me out of my chair and onto the dance floor. Hilda told her sister, Estelle, visiting from Mexico, that my Spanish was much improved. I was touched by her confidence in me. By the time I got home from the reception, my head was jumbled with nothing but Spanish words. The cats were not amused until I pulled out the comida (food) word — then they were trilling their Rs with the best of them. Olé.
But the problem is that on the last Tuesday of classes, Carlos decided that we’d have a contest — Conjugate The Verb! Whoever could fill in all eight tenses of the verb in the fastest time was the winner! He pulled out the most irregular of the irregulars. I was sunk. I didn’t get beyond the imperfecto for most of them and never all the way through the bloody eight. I felt like that fraud again. Why didn’t I memorize those verbs like that 16-year-old across the table who won all five rounds? I mean, really, if I can be disciplined enough to get up every morning and do an hour or more of exercises, why can’t I spend an hour a day memorizing Spanish verb tenses????? I can’t go on to the Advanced level without knowing those, eh?
I was sad about this for a day and then, on Wednesday, like all Wednesdays, I met Clara, my new friend who is also learning Spanish. We’ve been meeting and chatting in Spanish (well, most of the time) at the Tik Talk Cafe for the past month or so. We laugh a lot at our attempts to put sentences together that resemble the Spanish that we’re learning. This week, we started reading children’s books in Spanish. We were shocked that those kids in the book knew the subjunctive and the conditional and the pluperfect of something! Amazing. So I decided, not to feel bad about not memorizing those conjugations. This is how I’ll learn all those tenses, eh? Word by word, sentence by sentence, I’ll continue to fill my pockets with Spanish words and phrases. Maybe I’ll go back and take the Advanced Course, but not right now — unless Carlos is teaching!