Spanish Dictionary

“¿Qué piensa usted del evento en la página cuatro?”

I caught the last words, “page four,” and ruffled through La Opinión as I translated the rest in my head. There was a distinct pause as I flipped through the pages of my mental Spanish dictionary:

Piensa” = “pensar” = to think.

She’s asking what we think about something on page four…

By the time I mastered that verbal trickery, the other students were already chatting in blurring machine gun staccato. I tried valiantly to translate every tenth or fifteenth word using my handy yet admittedly slim mental dictionary. DOS booting up in the early nineties was faster than my memory retrieval. This is how I discovered that nodding at certain intervals went a long way towards feigning participation.

Students for whom Spanish was a second language I could follow. The Brazilian girl with the hair that looked like a coppery waterfall enunciated clearly and took adequate time finding the proper verb tense. Spanish was her third language, English her second. As if I didn’t feel inferior enough.

Her and the second generation Mexican-American man who grew up speaking Spanglish at home used simple vocabulary and avoided complex expression. Them I could understand.

The remaining nine students all claimed Spanish as a mother tongue and spoke comfortably, La Profesora correcting their grammar occasionally with a gently added preposition or tweaked conjugation.

La Profesora never corrected my grammar. She could see me mentally straining for the correct word, not even bothering to conjugate it because that would take too fucking long. And definite articles? Forget it. I could make myself understood, but as far as sophisticated conversation was concerned, I was out.

This was my third attempt at Advanced Conversation, the final required course for my Minor in Spanish. Both of the prior times I ran from the classroom halfway through the first class, smiling embarrassedly at the teacher as if to say, “Oops! Wrong class.”

In between semesters and self-flagellating embarrassment I listened to Spanish talk radio, memorized flashcards of irregular verbs and honestly worked at understanding this not-so-difficult language. I got pretty adept at reading the language and pronunciation, but without Intermediate Conversation or a Spanish-speaking boyfriend to prod me along I was screwed.

Did I mention that my college didn’t offer Intermediate Conversation? Double screwed.

So there I was, throwing myself in the deep end like the brave token gringa I was. This time, however, would be different. I had a secret weapon hidden under the desk.

As La Profesora and the other native speakers bantered back and forth, I willed my brain to speed up, disregarding words that seemed superfluous and using my secret weapon for ones upon which the entire thrust of the conversation depended.

The tiny electronic pocket translator saved my life that day. For once, I felt like I was thinking in Spanish. The words came to me as if floating on tiny electronic clouds. I got an A+ in the class and moved to a Spanish villa on the Iberian coastline with my new lover Miguel.

Just kidding. That day, La Profesora asked me, in English, if I could talk after class. My face fell. I had never heard her speak English before. Apparently, I wasn’t fooling anybody.

That evening, as I dropped the class online, I realized I would have to start another minor all over again. Pinche pundeja. 

Scrolling through the list of available classes, I resolved to pick something in which I knew I would excel. After all, a girl can only take so much failure. I mean, fracaso.

Art Books

– – –

Seeing as I’ve been practicing linguistics again, I decided to revive this older post for the moonshine grid.


Advanced Conversational Spanish — 40 Comments

  1. Aw, how frustrating! I always liked language (except English, ha!), but I took French, which was really not the best choice given how useful Spanish is in CA.

  2. I jumped into Spanish 202 my Senior year of college after not taking any Spanish classes in seven years (I took 3 years in HS). The Peruvian instructor started class by saying “en ese clase, nunca habla ingles. Nunca!” I passed…but it took every once of studying that summer. And that instructor was a real poonta (pardon my Romance language).
    Chris plumb recently posted…Freeloading Roommates and Dumpster Pizza–Just Another Bachelor StoryMy Profile

  3. I can so feel your pain, Natalie! I’m living in Germany and trying to learn the language. I do great with vocabulary, but actually forming a sentence AND having a conversation?! I feel like Charlie Brown sitting in the classroom listening to his teacher “wah wah wah wah”. 🙂

    Btw, I see you have a cartoon for your image now…..where do these come from?
    Deanna recently posted…My Head’s Bigger Than YoursMy Profile

  4. Dios Mio!

    As a voice major, I got poetic or religious education in most romance languages. Want to sing a requiem in Italian? Compare your love to a turtle-dove in French? I’m your fella.

    Want to, you know, find a place to pee which won’t end up with you getting arrested? I’m useless.
    Ben Jackson recently posted…Remember Not to Be a JerkMy Profile

  5. This was me exactly only it was German, my sophomore year of college, in Advanced Conversation and Composition. Everyone else in the class had a German grandma that lived with them when they were little or had just come back from the summer or semester in Vienna. I was the only one who had nothing but book learnin’ and I was drowning. I was spending all my time on my German homework and only getting a C, plus if I didn’t start devoting some time to my other classes, those grades would have tanked too. I dropped it and had my best semester ever.
    Ellen recently posted…She Divines WaterMy Profile

  6. Hahaha – EXCELLENT last line. Oh, ya know Natalie, I took one year of Freshman French in high school and all I remember is how to say “my name is…”, “I love you” and “shut your mouth”. Also, I can order like three items in a restaurant. I stunk. But I blame the handsome French teacher. How could I possibly pay attention? Why do you think one of the only things I can say is “I love you”?
    Linda Roy recently posted…Deport Bieber! ( And Please Take Celine)My Profile

  7. I hear you. Me and languages are no bueno. I’ve taken Latin, French, Spanish and dabbled in Italian. Ask me how many languages I speak. Honestly, sometimes I can’t even handle English! I can read a little bit of most languages I’ve studied, but that is it. Two weeks in Italy didn’t help much either. I’m useless.
    Misty recently posted…What a Big Pickle You HaveMy Profile

  8. I was a Spanish minor in college and since I had never gone abroad/wasn’t a native speaker I was always falling behind. Don’t tell, but one semester when we were reading Cien Anos de Soledad and I was hopelessly lost I went out and bought 100 Years of Solitude so I didn’t have to read the damn thing in Spanish. Oops.
    Samantha Brinn Merel recently posted…Here and ThereMy Profile

  9. I could totally relate to this post, Natalie! I took a couple years of French, which didn’t yield much in the way of bilingual fruit. I also took 4 years of Spanish, but none of it really stuck. I can say The Our Father, and “You have a big penis” though, which is not very relevant for my Buddhist Lesbian lifestyle.
    Karen recently posted…DeliveranceMy Profile

  10. Oh, yes. I completely understand the struggles with trying to speak a new language. I joke that I have a “second-language impediment,” having failed at becoming conversational in Spanish and French. But what I learned from traveling is that most folks are happy that you try and embrace the cross-language barriers.

  11. Oh, yes! I completely understand the challenges in learning a second language, having failed to do so with both Spanish and French. But I did pick up enough to be somewhat conversational and for the locals to understand that I was doing my best to speak their language. What was left was an effort on both parts to cross the multi-lingual divide. Fun stuff!
    Kim from Awkward Laughter recently posted…Good Luck? Bad Luck? What Luck!My Profile

  12. Living in Texas, how I wish I could speak Spanish! Sadly, my years of French classes are not really paying off. I like where you’re headed with your new choice of a minor.

  13. ah, i feel your pain! i too speak spanish but i am terrible with grammar. thankfully most people understand me but i cannot remember the conjugations and past tense forms in my head, for the life of me! i listen to some latino music (i love juanes) which helps but indeed..mastering a language is so difficult.
    soapie recently posted…Thawing at the Moon’s FeetMy Profile

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