We’ve come a long way since our first week when, filling out a deluge of newcomer forms, we asked ourselves which number, exactly, was our “first number”. (Pro tip: “nombre” means name, not number. You’re welcome.)
There were a few perilous weeks between then and now during which I confidently asked for “boots of water” at restaurants, a request always met with a polite smirk, which eventually led me to Google the word for bottle on a hunch. (Pro tip: it’s “una botella” not “una bota”.) Not so miraculously, though, the bottle of water always made its way to the table, reinforcing J’s theory that a few nouns and a lot of pointing are really all you need to survive in Spanish.
MSG hopefuls and spouses, beware that the program does not provide any pre-departure language training. It’s both frustrating and counterintuitive to be sent to a country where almost no one speaks English and expected not only to make a life for yourself but also represent your country. It can be degrading to perpetuate the infamous monolingual American stereotype (even when you’re not actually monolingual). Every failed attempt at Spanish is met with a mix of humor and contempt, the unspoken question “why don’t they just learn Spanish?” Trust me, amigos, I’m trying.
This language barrier makes the first few months more stressful than is entirely necessary, but there are resources available to you. Many Embassies have a post language program, or at least a list of recommended tutors. If you’re proactive and take advantage of learning opportunities, it’ll come. Luckily for me, we ended up in a Spanish-speaking country, where investing time and money in the language is actually likely to pay off before we leave. For those facing tonal or script languages, I wonder if it’s worth trying beyond pleasantries and survival phrases. I’d like to think I would try anyway, not because I’m particularly gifted with languages, but I genuinely enjoy the challenge.
I credit half of my budding Spanish ability to twelve years of formal studies in French. The general grammatical foundation and vocab overlap gives me an immense head start, though my strategy of spanishizing French words has led me astray many times. The repairman was almost as confused and I was when I asked him to “appeal me,” assuming the Spanish verb for “to call” would be “apelar” since its French equivalent was “appeler”.
The other half I credit to the private tutor, B, with whom I meet each week for 1.5-2 hours. I’d planned to shop around for a tutor before settling on one, but after my first session with B that didn’t feel necessary. She speaks beautiful English (a logistical blessing) but also agreed to conduct our sessions 99% in Spanish. I butcher her language for hours on end and somehow she always knows what I’m trying to say. At least I get to entertain her, though, as I make silly mistakes like mixing up “ask” with “fart”. (Pro tip: I have no pro tips for conjugation. There are no such thing as regular verbs in Spanish. It would only make sense for pedir to be “pedo” in the first person, but it’s “pido”. Ridiculous.)
Every semi-coherent Spanish conversation is another little victory. Maybe soon I’ll even add a few tenses to my repertoire. Until then I’ll focus on the present… how very enlightened of my Spanish-speaking self.