El Chancho

Ay Mami. It sometimes feels like my life is fit for the pages of a Hemmingway novel, like the story takes place in “A Clean Well Lighted Place.” The familiar voices around me come out in different languages, ‘no hablo español bien.’

Either way, I find it interesting that by trade I am a writer, an avid communicator, and yet I can’t communicate with my closest companions. Suffice to say, I’m also part Greek so I have mastered the art of body language & hand gestures.

Have you ever noticed that when people are trying to over-come a language barrier they revert to the same techniques used by children who are learning to speak? There is always the initial tendency to point and grunt but upon further development, most people use a “charades- like” tactic to get their point across, acting out words and phrases in fragments.
I have recently started spending my time with a little old Spanish lady, appropriately nicknamed Mamita. Although our communication is minimal, I visit her often.
As the self-professed “Grandma’s girl” of two recently deceased “Abuelitas,” the emotional satisfaction I get from spending time with her far outweighs the immense amount of time I’ve spent learning to speak and comprehend conversational Spanish.

The process of learning the language actually began several years ago, when I started a career teaching high school in Baltimore City; I received a call from a school that needed a Spanish teacher and although my degree is in English, the school was “desperate” and I was “the best candidate for the job.”
Needless to say, it was a freight train of a first experience and I spent more time teaching my students to conjugate verbs in English than I did teaching them to conjugate them in Spanish. I liked to think I ended my six month stint as a Spanish teacher with the fluency of a first grader but now looking back on it, I missed out on a fundamental part of the learning process.

When I accepted the daunting task of teaching a language that I did not speak, I spent hours at home reading a text-book every night and then hours teaching what I learned the next day. I learned to conjugate verbs like a pro, and four years later I can still conjugate a verb in Spanish better than most of my Spanish-speaking friends. But herein lies the problem, in learning to change verb-endings like a mathematical process, I failed to develop a relationship with the words I had memorized. What’s the point of memorizing all the parts of car when you have no idea how and when to put them together?

I realize now that what I missed out on was the childish process of associating words with sounds, images, and physical actions. With out  learning to attach words to meanings, nothing I say in Spanish will ever have any real significance. Every vocabulary word I have ever learned has been only by memory and I have never developed a real correlation between a simple noun and verb.

When children learn to speak, the process is guided by an innate tendency to put two or more meanings together. Hasn’t your mother ever told you that “the duck goes QUACK, QUACK,” or that “the cat says MEOW!”
Both are phrases that children learn to associate with a specific person, place, or thing. Having missed the opportunity to experience the actual significance of a Spanish word, has left me sort of static and stuck in this language-limbo.

The result:
I find myself telling Mamita things like,” as en mi cuerno…” (It’s in my horn) instead of the intended phrase, “es en mi cuerta” (it’s in my room).

Eh, I suppose it is true when they say “no harm, no foul.”
That is, until the day that I go to a foreign Country and offend a local with my choice of poorly translated words. Then again, I suppose that experience would only solidify the relationship between words and action (or better yet, an unforgettable experience with a total stranger, in a foreign place.)

But I always have Mamita around to teach me the correct way to speak her native language, proving that she was right when she said, “All I’ve ever needed to know in my life, I learned in El Salvador.”

Either way, Mamita is determined to help me ‘aprendar hablar espanol’. We have even devoted an entire day to practicing my tongue roll and I am not ashamed to admit that we have often spent  hours making “pig-nose faces” and laughing uncontrollably while making “Oinking” noises at each other. I suppose that is one language everyone can speak…

The only sad part is that I still don’t remember the Spanish word for pig. But I will look it up  and I’d bet a hundred peso’s that this will help me to remember.

This is Mamita with her oldest son, Armando



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