Lessons in Language

When my dad was transferred to Medellin, Colombia more than thirty years ago, his company sent him to Cincinnati, Ohio for two intensive weeks of Spanish instruction.  Today, his Spanish is almost better than his English!  The very first thing I asked my husband when he accepted his transfer to Guaymas/San Carlos was whether or not we would be offered Spanish lessons.  The answer, unfortunately, was no.

San Carlos, officially called San Carlos Nuevo Guaymas, is a part of the Guaymas Municipality.  The area as a whole has a population of close to 135,00 people.  San Carlos, developed primarily as a beachfront residential area, has a population of approximately 7,000.  For the most part, its residents are retirees and transplants from the United States and Canada.  As a result, the predominant language in San Carlos is English.  It is possible to conduct all business- -grocery shopping and other errands, dining, recreation and sight seeing- -without speaking a word of Spanish.  This includes my husband’s job as well.  Nearly all professionals in his company are bilingual.

While I arrived with a decent grasp of the Spanish language, I was determined to find a teacher and move from passable to proficient.  I assumed finding a Spanish tutor in a Spanish speaking country would be an easy task.  You know what they say about making assumptions…

My first tutors were students at the Secundaria School in the fishing village of La Manga, where I volunteered teaching English two days a week.  I am certain that I learned much more from them than they did from me.  They loved to hear me try to say “refrigerador” and “ferretería”.  I have since learned that even native Spanish speakers here use “refri” instead of refrigerador.  Oh, just wait until I see those kids again!

It took six months to find a Spanish teacher.  Shortly after we began working together, I had an experience while shopping in Guaymas that truly humbled me.  I asked a shop owner if the store next door to him was open.  I didn’t understand his reply and asked him to repeat it.  In perfect English, he asked me how long I had been living in Guaymas.  I answered him in Spanish.  He continued angrily in English, reminding me that in the United States we are not always very gracious toward people who do not speak our language.  I knew in my heart he was right.  I have read too many Letters to the Editor, op-ed pieces, and comments on social media.  I have listened to too many “talking heads”, acquaintances, and even family members that give credence to his sentiments and remarks.  He was understandably upset.  I happened to represent an unkind attitude that he may have encountered.  Instead of defending myself or making excuses, I told him that I was trying to learn and even had a teacher.  His advice to me was to try harder and get a better teacher.

IMG_4137So I redoubled my efforts.   I meet twice a week with my tutor; once for vocabulary and grammar practice, and a second time for Spanish conversation.  I complete practice exercises in  workbooks and search for lessons on-line.  I initiate exchanges with people on the beach, follow the gardeners from the hotel next door all over the place, and chat up the guards at our front gate.  I am pretty sure I drive them all crazy!  But they are patient, kind, and encouraging. In fact, one of our guards recently tried to fire my tutor, convinced that teaching me Spanish is his job!

The support of so many has made a huge difference in my learning.  I find myself more willing to take risks.  Even if I totally botch it, my mistakes are an opportunity for growth.  I am more appreciative of efforts made by others to speak English to me as well.  We all have the power to be teachers.  Be aware of this potential.  Are the lessons we share compassionate?  Uplifting?  Helpful?  Applaud the effort and celebrate progress, not perfection.

Oh, and if you happen to find yourself in a conversation with a shopkeeper in Guaymas, never use “repita” or “mas despacio” if you do not understand.  In Sonora, Mexico, “mande” gives you a lot more street cred!

Author: acstrine

Amy is a former elementary school teacher, currently living "Over the Border" with her husband. She loves reading, traveling, and learning through new experiences. While she would be incredibly flattered if you choose to share her articles, she asks that her name is kindly included as the author.  

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