Dropped into the world of Spanish…

November 21, 2015
Near the language school I attended in Madrid.

Near the language school I attended in Madrid.

I have found myself explaining why I went all the way to Spain to study Spanish.

One heck of a lot of people are speaking Spanish right here in the USA.

And I come from California with a rich Spanish history, once being part of Spain and then part of Mexico before we fulfilled our manifest destiny. And today in many areas of the state or in many environments — such as the trucking/warehouse industry, of which I have taken part in for two decades — you will hear more Spanish than English. Now let’s get over the hey-this-is-the-U.S.-speak-English thing. Hey, basically I feel that way too, at least to a point. English by virtue of our history is our official/unofficial language and certainly one needs to know it here and should know it, but reality also says it is handy to know another language, especially if it is used in one’s environment, and besides it makes for a fuller life (it does not have to be Spanish, but that is the one I chose).

I studied Spanish for a mere three semesters in college, and off and on through the years I have tried to get into it.

While I still have a long ways to go before I could even imagine calling myself fluent (and at 66 time is dwindling perhaps), I feel I did get a major boost in language classes I took in Spain. Like I tell people:

Aprendì mucho, sin embargo, acabo de empezar.

And if my Spanish is correct, I said I learned a lot but I have just begun.

Where did I get this idea of taking Spanish lessons in Spain? Well blame it on my dentist. Actually I should thank him (although all the money I have paid him ought to suffice, but he is a great dentist I must say).

I had mentioned to him that I vacationed in Spain the previous year and really enjoyed it but the only downside was that my Spanish was not up to par. I couldn’t seem to get much past mucho gusto (pleased to meet you) and ordering drinks or food. Well I did seem to have my spiel about where I was from and what I did for a living down pat, except once when I was trying to give a little bit of personal history, that is that I had been to Europe way back when I was in the army. I used the wrong word (equipo instead of ejèrcito, the former can mean team and the latter means army) and I think they thought I meant a soccer team (they call it fùtbol, of course). I got some raised eyebrows (what I don’t look like a fùtbol player?).

My dentist said he had attended a language course in Spain and suggested I might try that, since I was planning to go back anyway.

But all that is so last year.

I went solo this year, while last year I was with an Hispanic couple and their son, and the father is actually from Spain.

It’s a long flight, 13 hours from San Francisco. I arrived in the predictable jet-lag daze.

I dropped out of the sky and landed on Spanish soil and all but said goodbye to the English language for one month.

I was picked up by a driver who spoke little to no English. I was relieved that the school’s name was on the van but to be honest up until this point I was not totally sure this was all on the up and up — I had already paid the money. But if that school’s name had not been on the door I would have been awful dubious. It seemed the driver was going around in circles. If it had been a taxi I would have suspected that the driver was trying to run up the meter. But actually he was forced to go around in circles because streets were blocked off all over the place. They were having a bicycle event. He kept muttering some word I could not make out. He was either talking about the streets being blocked off or some off-color anatomical description, I never was able to translate it for sure.

Even with my previous Spanish language experiences I was somewhat timid is using the language, especially at first.

But I recall waltzing into a bank and thinking I would just exchange some of my dollars for Euros.

¿Tiene usted una cuenta señor? a man behind a desk asked me. I should add that I had to push a security button just to get into the bank. Banks in Europe are not as open as they are in the USA.

I quickly realized he was asking if I had an account there. “No”. I answered.

Lo siento (I’m sorry) señor.

Well anyway, I already knew that I could use the outside teller machines because I had used them last year but I have this phobia you might call it about machines that swallow your card — I’m afraid they won’t spit it back out. Without that card I would have been in big trouble. But the need for money helped me overcome my fear.

I went to a drug store, la farmacia, and bought some necessary items. The gal gave me a free bottle of mouthwash — was she trying to tell me something? What she did advise about the mouthwash in her limited English was that I had to “throw it out”. Well why did she give it to me then? Actually she hesitated when she used that phrase. And I quickly recalled that in Spanish that is probably what you could literally say, using the verb echar which has several meanings and uses but one might be understood to throw something.

I stayed in the residence of a woman who hosts school students and who as far as I could ever tell spoke only a little English, but then again I think part of the agreement she has with the school is to speak Spanish at all times. So I went a month at the residence using only Spanish (carefully, if hurriedly forming my sentences in my mind). We did not have long discussions for the most part  but a few times I began conversations and then took on almost more than I could handle, at times only understanding the theme of what she was saying.

And into my fourth week when I was all in a bother about getting my stuff together for the plane ride home in desperation I blurted out something about if she has seen something and did not realize that I was speaking English. That was the only time she ever gave me what appeared almost to be as a scowl.

She said something like:

Si te me pregunta en español voy a contester (If you ask me in Spanish I will answer).

Lo siento, lo siento (I’m sorry, I’m sorry), I apologized.

I had signed up for a super-intensive course, so for five days a week for four weeks (save one holiday) I was in classes from 9 a.m. till at least 3:30 p.m. and sometimes 4:30 p.m. with only a 20-minute break or pausa as they called it. No siesta.

And by the by (a propòsito) I never have got the full low-down on how the traditional Spanish siesta is observed. Stores and other businesses are often closed a couple or so hours in the afternoon and people tend to have to work later because of that I think).

During the school, which was primarily lecture and class participation, with light homework, the profesors and profesoras spoke virtually always in Spanish even if you desperately asked a question in English (I quit trying to use English early on, like the first day). If you did not understand then they tried to explain in another way and used gestures (polite ones).

Now I and the other students at my level came in with some knowledge of Spanish but not much. And you know? the system works. I think as long as you use your mother tongue as a crutch, you will have a hard time mastering another language.

It is interesting though that English does seem to be a universal language. I noticed most of the students, who came from China, Japan, Germany, Holland, Brazil, and other places, all spoke English, and some of them quite well. Yes, I did hear some English there, but primarily among my fellow students (I mean I speak no Chinese), but only a small amount from the faculty.

Most of my classes had less than a dozen students and for at least an hour each day I worked one-on-one with a professor.

I was by myself, like I said, and I am a fairly solitary person, but I did manage to get out besides going to school, but I’m running long here and will continue this in another post.


I did not identify the school out of respect for it. I mean I don’t want to tarnish its image by anything I might write such as incorrect language usage (I’m still learning) or my own peculiar way of describing things perhaps. I was quite pleased with the school. The faculty seemed top rate.