Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Tuesday nights, en español

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At work I'm listening to Mexican public radio - something historical. Trying to write a script for the morning show, trying to follow the conversation on the show that's on the air. Multitasking is especially ineffective when you're trying to follow two audio streams at once. The Mexican podcast is suffering the most from my divided attention. I've decided to just let the language wash over me, and not worry about comprehension for now.

Several bloggers have posted recently about learning and speaking Spanish (including Moving to Mérida, Yucatango, Imagine Mérida, An Alaskan in Yucatán ). Lots of great tips and resources. My own efforts to grasp the language have been on and off. It's high on the nice-to-do list, but not yet one of the must-dos, while work and family obligations limit the time we can spend away.

My Spanish skills lie somewhere in the territory between beginner and intermediate. I often have the unfortunate experience of starting a conversation with a local person in Mérida, and getting a long, fast and to me, mostly incomprehensible reply. I recognize a lot of the words but can't put them together fast enough. Many of the verb conjugations and articles and expressions are unfamiliar. I feel foolish and my face starts to freeze into an embarassed grin. Times like that I wonder if I'll ever get much better at this language thing.

Back when we first got our place, I went with our property manager to meet the next door neighbor. She was graciously describing the nearby conveniences, shops and transit and such. I guess I was looking increasingly befuddled. The neighbor turned to Maggie and asked, with what I thought was a hint of incredulity: "She doesn't speak Spanish?" Maggie kindly replied that I knew bastante, enough. I wish it were so.

Sometimes I feel like it is coming to me. Comprehension begins to emerge from the fog of words and phrases. Other times I totally suck at it, and feel like my language skills are heading in reverse; that I am un-learning.

Lately I've been meeting other Spanish-language enthusiasts Tuesday nights at a local café in Victoria. Se Habla Español  has been meeting for years. It started as a handful of people playing Scrabble in Spanish in someone's apartment, and grew.

Now, on a typical night 20 or more people at all levels of proficiency turn out for two hours of conversation en español. You just show up, buy a coffee or whatever, and contribute a dollar to cover the group's modest costs (principally running the website and organizing occasional parties). It was a pleasant surprise to discover friends, and friends of friends, and parents of our kids' friends, among the regular group. Everyone has a different reason for coming. One friend is an artist who sometimes works in Spain in the winters. Another, a doctor who volunteers with a project to provide health care to poor communities in Honduras. One has a novia in Colombia. Several have spent months or years traveling or living in Latin America. Some participants are native Spanish speakers from Mexico or elsewhere.

At first when I went it seemed like after an hour of concentration my brain started to hurt. Now two hours doesn't feel too overwhelming. I discovered it helps to bring index cards with a couple of verb tense conjugations I'm trying to learn, for quick reference. Increasingly, I'm experiencing that wonderful, elusive feeling that I'm following whole conversations, not fading in and out of range like a bad radio signal. Could this be real progress? We'll see, next month.


  1. It sounds like real progress to me, and far more advanced than I am. I do have to get serious, though. I want to be able to do more than just 'get by'. It's not easy, but I believe that immersion will be the best and fastest way to get proficient.

  2. Yes, it sounds like you have found a good place to make progress. It will be interesting to hear how you feel about your skills when you are immersed your next visit.

  3. What a great group! I did some Googling and checked on "meet ups," but I can't find anything remotely similar to this group near me. Every little bit helps, and eventually all of those pieces will start coming together. Well, at least that's what I keep telling myself!

  4. Debbie,
    We all survived learning our very first language, so don't despair. (I suspect I'm at about the same level as you are. I feel like I'm three or four years old.)

    Desire is the biggest asset. I want to understand what is being said around me, and to be able to respond. But it's all about location. If the living language laboratory isn't right there, attention fades. I need to tackle and apply ten new words per day. But without context, it doesn't happen for me. That will change in about a month!


  5. John and Alan, I agree immersion would be a great boost. I'm hoping to take one of those 2-week immersion programs at Hablá one of these
    times. I've found their classes to be very good.

    Marc, your fluency and cultural immersion are a real inspiration and encouragement to me, and many others I'm sure. I've got a long, long way to go to get there, but progress is very satisfying, if uneven.

    Susan, I initially looked for an official "meetup" group in Victoria without any luck, but learned about this one by word of mouth. Maybe we should practice our español together in Mérida. I think the great accomplishment of the local group is getting people past the awkwardness of speaking Spanish in a room full of mostly English speakers. I've been looking forward to attending the Merida English Language Library conversation nights for the same thing.

    Eric, I think the three-four year old comparison is about right. And the 10-word-a-day goal is a good idea I should try. I tend to forget what I learn pretty quickly if I'm not using it. Will you be in Merida before the end of Oct.? Hope to see you and Mary!

  6. Thanks for asking, Debbie. We will be on the road, driving towards Merida sometime during the last week of October. Our rental commences November 1st. If we arrive early, we'll say hello.


    ps: 10 words a day is probably a stretch. But even if I retain only half that, I'm making progress. I love collecting words; but managing syntax is the real challenge.

  7. Debbie, while you are here you can keep up your practicing at the Merida English Language Library. They do Conversations with Friends on Monday nights, 7pm I believe.

  8. Hi Debi,
    Thanks for the info.
    I have read about the MELL conversation nights and I think I'll finally get to go to one (or two) on this trip.

  9. I, too, struggle, and have been for years now. I agree--learning a word and not using it meaningfully, means a forgotten word tomorrow. Let me share the SLOWEST word acquisition method--teach an African Grey parrot to say a word correctly! My Cucurrucucu can now pronounce "algarabía" perfectly! But she hasn't yet said, "Algarabía is gobbledigook." This might be a slow method, but it sure makes me laugh.

  10. Alinde, that is so funny. I looked up Algarabía ("gabble", says Google Translate) and will see if I can learn it faster than your parrot.

    I've been trying to teach the dog Spanish, as he has a pretty good vocabulary in English (comprehension, not spoken, unfortunately). He looks a bit irritated by my algarabía, but it's a convenient way to practice conjugations etc.