Hablando Español, Más o Menos

Sept. 08, 2008

“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”

– John Steinbeck

A huge part of the stress of studying or traveling abroad is living with constant ambiguity – knowing you lack the cultural background and linguistic aptitude to completely understand what’s going on around you.  Now that one quarter of the semester has elapsed, I feel like I’m finally getting the hang of things here in Mexico.  At least a little.

I’m halfway through my first set of Partial Exams, of which there are four during the semester.  I have two left, and I’ve just received my grades from the two I took last week.  In my Política Mundial class – the one in which I almost cried (multiple times) out of pure frustration at my inability to comprehend the professor or the material – I got a 95 percent.  A 95!  I had been hoping for, but not betting on, a 70 percent.

At Hendrix, professors return tests at the end of a class period, so students are free to review the exam at their leisure, in private.  Here, the process was terrifying: you wait for the professor to call your name, and then you sit at the front of the class with him and discuss your answers, arguing for more points if you feel you were unjustly denied.  No matter how quietly you whisper, everyone can hear.  Stressful!

When the professor first handed back my test, I was ecstatic to receive a 90.  But he had marked one of my responses, the one I was most confident in, as only worth half credit.  Dutifully, I argued – and won!  The prof also told me that my (written) Spanish was better than my Mexican classmates’!  I’m sure I was beaming.

Assessing the situation critically, the prof may have just wanted to boost my confidence.  I’ve really been struggling to participate in class, since it’s quite hard to shout out questions (let alone answers) in a foreign language when you’re already fighting just to understand the lecture and scribble some notes.  It’s even harder when you can’t quite remember how to pronounce the correct answer, or whether the key verb of your question is a stem-changer or not.  I’m sure I do have better spelling than some of my classmates, but my spoken Spanish is quaintly pocked with misconjugations and other grammar errors.

The professor’s comment led me to reflect on my Spanish progress so far, now that I’ve been in Mexico for exactly six weeks.  I’d say that, depending on whom I’m chatting with, I can hold a fairly sophisticated conversation in Spanish.  It’s easiest to speak with other foreigners, whose limited Spanish vocabulary matches my own.  It’s also best if the listener doesn’t speak much English, so I know that my choppy Spanish is still more intelligible to him or her than my fluent English would be.  Unfortunately most people here don’t fit those criteria.  I especially struggle to speak when I’m in the presence of gorgeous men, but that problem plagues my English conversations, too.

I also didn’t realize how much important vocabulary I was missing until I arrived.  I’m using Spanish in situations that challenge me even in English – getting a haircut, going to the doctor, flirting, etc.  Moments like these hinge on proper word choice, and on understanding the responses you’re dealt.  To be sure I got the haircut I wanted a few weeks ago, I brought my Colombian friend with me to translate.  So far I’ve been flirting successfully on my own, though.

Directing taxis, communicating via Facebook, and learning to dance salsa all require words I never picked up in Spanish classes.  Phew!  Honestly, for the first few weeks of classes I would need a major afternoon nap each day, just to recharge my brain after the effort of so much Spanish.  And then for the next two weeks I was napping all the time because I was sick.  It’s great to be moving out of the nap phase and into the actually-enjoying-Mexico phase!

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