My dear Spanish teacher, Edith, about whom I’ve written a lot over the years I’ve lived here in San Miguel de Allende, during which she’s patiently, good-heartedly put up with my inability to learn this language, told me this week that I am improving. If only this were true.

I try. I do. I’m not giving up. I’m just setting boundaries (by eschewing too-difficult-for-me verb conjugations) and lowering my expectations (no longer striving to be the smartest girl in the class). Edith and I have a lesson every week – conversations, mostly, about Mexican culture and history, world news, the weather, the usual – and when I can’t follow her, she writes down the words that have stumped me so I might later review them. In between I do fun little Duolingo lessons on my smartphone every day.

I can get by, make myself understood (sort-of) by the good-natured Mexican people here. I smile at their smiling faces and use a lot of hand gestures (stand-ins for the missing verbs), and somehow we communicate. Invariably, I come away from these cross-cultural encounters a richer person. I may not be improving appreciably, as Edith claims, but I’m still learning. And this ongoing process alone makes me happy.

Before I made my final decision to retire to Mexico, I read a number of books on the subject. This was about eight years ago, when books were still respected as a solid source of information, before social media became the go-to venue for easy advice. One of the urgent questions I sought an answer for from these books was, Would I need to speak fluent Spanish before making this life-changing move?

 I had studied French in school and learned to speak it passably well in Francophone Africa in the Peace Corps. But my Spanish vocabulary was solely culinary — consisting of my favorite Mexican foods: chili con carne, guacamole, and enchiladas. I knew I had a lot to learn and wondered whether I could learn it at the age of seventy.

Of the five books I ordered from Amazon and read hungrily before emigrating here, my favorite was Carol M. Merchasin’s This is Mexico: Tales of Culture and Other Complications, because it’s not only informative, it’s also laugh-out-loud funny. I used to read passages from it to my Creative Nonfiction writing students in Taos, New Mexico, as excellent examples of how to write humor.

Carol Merchasin with her book This is Mexico

One of my favorite chapters in Carol’s book, which helped me to overcome my worries about learning this new-to-me language, is “Ser, Estar, and the Charms of Living in Spanish,” about her and her husband Robert’s efforts to learn Spanish in San Miguel. In it she writes:

“Señor Roberto [her term of endearment for her husband throughout the book] once told our lawyer (our abogado) he was grateful to have him as our avocado. If I had been the listener, I would have been rolling on the floor laughing. Instead, our lawyer smiled as though he appreciated being held in the same general esteem as guacamole.

“This scenario repeats itself in ways too many to mention as I travel the long, unpaved road to living in Spanish,” Carol writes. “Since the route is filled with potholes, I often ask myself, Why bother? Plenty of people live in Mexico without speaking Spanish. I don’t have time to do this, I tell myself. I am too old, I whine. I will never, ever be fluent. That at least rings true.

“But I have kept on, propelled mostly by guilt. What I lack in aptitude, I try to overcome with persistence. That endears me to Mexicans, who are not like the French, who are said to be contemptuous of anything less than an expert attempt to communicate. No, Mexicans will smile like delighted grandparents, clapping, cooing, and astonished at the progress you have made in butchering their language.”

Carol’s frustrations in learning Spanish mirror my own. I agree with her that sometimes it’s just too challenging. She writes, “Whose idea was it to make the word for straight ahead (derecho) almost the same as the one for going to the right (derecha)? Do we even know the number of gringos who are permanently lost as a result of this word warp?”

Jokes aside, she and I agree that there’s a lot to love about the Spanish language. “I am another person in Spanish,” Carol writes, “someone with no name but a title, La Señora, saying less because I can’t say more, forced into a simpler existence because I am always on the frontier of what I can understand.”

Not long after I came to live happily-ever-after in San Miguel almost seven years ago, I interviewed Carol for my WOW blog (do read the full interview at: www.blog.bonnieleeblack.com/carol-merchasin’s-mexico/ ), and we became friends. We are close in age, and our birthdays in May are two days apart, so we’ve found we have much in common – not the least of which is our stubborn (Taurus) determination to keep on learning Spanish.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

* This is Mexico is available through Amazon.com, www.amazon.com, and from She Writes Press, www.shewritespress.com .)

* To read summaries of the five books I consulted before deciding to retire to Mexico, go to: www.blog.bonnieleeblack.com/book-guides/ .


41 thoughts on “Learning”

  1. Exactly! I am a slow learner too, but I am committed to getting better, poco a poco, as a gesture of respect. And it’s fun to learn and use this language because, as you say, our Mexican hosts seem to appreciate our efforts and are so patient and forgiving. Gracias Mija.

    1. Thanks, querida Kim. Yes, it astonishes me daily how tolerant and patient Mexicans are. We gringos really need to take lessons from them — and not only in the Spanish language.

    1. Great to hear from you, dear Pat. I hope you’re doing well up there in New Mexico. And I hope you have occasion to practice your Spanish there from time to time. — Abrazos, BB

  2. Your reference to Carol Merchasin’s husbands faux pas had me laughing with memories of my physician husbands encounter with a Spanish speaking patient. He instructed him to put 2 cats (gatos instead of gotas) in his eyes, 2 cows (vacas instead of veces) a day. He couldn’t understand why his patient erupted in peals of laughter!

  3. Bless you! Your determination is admirable! When I hear things like “the words for straight ahead and going right” are so similar, it’s when my Italian hands and arms are engaged to demonstrate verbs. Lol. As you obviously do yourself. When we were in Venice, and Italian asked me for directions. Tony said “you don’t speak Italian!” I said “you’re obviously not listening to my gestures!” Proud of you, my friend. You’ve always adapted like a champ!

    1. Thank you, Michael darling. Yes, when it comes to Spanish, my hand gestures are Italian! 🙂 You’re a champ too, my dear; it takes one to know one. LU, BB xx

  4. I love Carol’s book. I laughed non-stop when she described how she had something delivered to her home. When she paid the delivery person, she needed change and he didn’t have any change. So she said, if you knew you were going to deliver this, why didn’t you bring change? He said if you knew I was going to deliver today, why didn’t you have change?

    1. Right? There is a certain logic there, si? I am not in Mexico right now and I needed of good dose of Mexican thinking. Thank you for reminding me of that!

  5. I really enjoyed this post, Bonnie, as well as the delightful comments. Sometimes I compliment women with attractive hair (pelo) by saying I like their dog (pero). I am finding that my Spanish skills are improving by online dating Mexican men!

    1. Well, yes, there’s nothing like pillow talk with a person who speaks another language to improve one’s language-acquisition skills. Good for you, Rhoda! 🙂

    2. En la cantina, la comida, y la cama—I learned yesterday at a friend’s 80th birthday that those were the best places to learn Spanish!

        1. Exactly, Bonnie, not alone! Language is best learned in the company of others. I learned to get more comfortable speaking Spanish publicly in that one week with you in San Miguel than I have in Taos the whole time I’ve been studying it. It’s different in an entirely (well, kind of) Spanish-speaking country. And it’s so true about words and their meanings just slip-sliding away. xoxo

          1. Edith used to tell me to practice my Spanish by going to the Jardin and chatting with strangers, specifically Mexicans, on park benches. My response was, “Oh, no! I can’t do that! I’m a New Yorker. We’ve been conditioned to NOT speak to strangers.” Maybe if/when I get over this, my Spanish will improve! 🙂

          2. “Maybe if/when I get over this, my Spanish will improve!” No doubt about it. The Mexicans will just value you for showing up and giving it a try. They are so unlike Americans in their absence of judgment. But then we are our own worst judges, right?

  6. Dear Bon,

    I admire your commitment to learning Spanish. I also think your teacher Edith is telling you the truth. Fluency is an appropriate goal, but that does not mean speaking passably well is not an achievement to celebrate. Being a questing, life-long learner is something that is part of who you are. That is the most important thing, and the world could use a lot more of it.


  7. Thank you, Bonnie. This was fun to read, and I’ll probably get Carol’s book, too.

    I’ve been loving learning Spanish on Duolingo. I also use those cards you gave me but have gone through them WAY too many times! Why can’t I remember that quitar, for instance, is not “to quit” but to “remove, take away, take off, pull off, take out, wash away, take from, clear away, relieve, get out, take up, brush away…”? Sort of like the derecho vs. derecha (straight vs. right) comparison from another of your readers, only different.

    Still, that happens in English, too. Other than that, Spanish is, grammatically, extremely logical and always pronounceable. Far more in both areas so than either English or French.

    1. “Why can’t I remember…?” is my theme song, Be! If I had a hammer that would do the trick, I’d pound the words into my cabeza. As it is, they slip-slide away… 🙂

  8. Dear Bonnie:
    Never be upset and I am sure you will be very good speaker in Castellan. (spanish is wrong, so, After I gona explain you why). Saludos— Everardo from Linda’s plein air.

  9. I loved this post, Bonnie querida. Y tu español es bueno. I can see the confusions caused by words like aguacate/ abogado, derecho/derecha and gatos/gotas! Bueno, we ESL learners have own own issues with English too 🙂

    1. Gracias, querida Te! Yes, I imagine English is muy difícil to learn later in life too. There’s an expression in French that the Africans in Gabon used to say to me (regarding my learning to speak French there): “Petit a petit l’oisseau fait son nid” — little by little the bird builds his nest. I think if this every day. — Muchisimo love to you from SMA, BB xx

    2. Teresa, congratulations on being honored through Bill Baron’s last cartoon of La Porcina. He must really have appreciated your translation help over the years.

        1. It was in reference to an article in the Taos News, our local newspaper, about the beloved (and sometimes vilified by his targets) cartoonist Bill Baron. He also had a Spanish-language cartoon named “Umberto y Porcina.” He acknowledged Teresa for helping him with the translations over the years, even showing a last cartoon telling where people could download her latest book! I’d give more info, but I don’t have the hard copy at my house. It’s at Michael’s.

  10. My favorite faux pas was confusing ‘uvas’ (grapes) with ‘uñas (toenails). I said in flawed Spanish, ‘I cannot try on these pants because my grapes are wet! The sales clerk corrected me without a snicker!

    1. Ah, Suzanne, you’ve given my my chuckle for the day! As I mentioned to another WOW reader in a private e-mail, I used to confuse cabeza (head) and cerveza (beer) all the time. So when I tried to tell someone I had a headache I was thought to be having a beer. 🙂

      1. Many years ago while I was learning Spanish, I attended a Sunday bullfight where Joselito Huerta was fighting. Joselito was the favoured matador in all of Mexico, and he was a world-famous entertainer in the ring. When I returned to work on Monday, all my Mexican co-workers asked me how the bullfight had gone. I replied in my Spanish of the time, “It was wonderful! They awarded Joselito two ear canals and a broom.” My co-workers didn’t want to be rude, but they couldn’t contain their laughter at my warped Spanish. One of them put his head down on his desk, and all I could see were his shoulders shaking because he was silently laughing so hard. When they corrected my Spanish, I learned that the word for earflap is oreja and the word for tail is cola—what I had meant to say.

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