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Hola, this is not my mama’s Spanish

Monday, May 4, 2015

I used to hate Spanish when I was in high school. Not sure why because I had some nice teachers. Possibly, I had some subconscious need to hate it because my mother loved to hear people speak it even though she did not understand a word.

And as we all know, a daughter’s time-honoured obligation to P-off her mother requires great sacrifice and transcends all other choices. I also figured that communications officer Lt Uhura’s international translator on Star Trek would become as commonplace as wristwatches by the time I graduated. Alas, life lags behind television.

The joke is these days I can’t wait to get to my twice-weekly Spanish classes. And the high school instruction I so studiously ignored was lodged in some weird part of my brain because Profesora Maria is threatening to kick me out of the beginners’ class and export me to intermediate. 

This is all great for my ego. I have “the ear,” I am told. Secretly, when I was working so hard to dislike high school Spanish, I would imagine Spanish conversation was like a thriller waterfall tumbling over rocks. To speak Spanish like a native, you have to roll those R’s, mamacita—which reminds me of games we used to play as children, when we would roar up and down the yard in our imaginary sports cars, gunning the engines, with our own oral sound effects. 

Spanish is fun—a happy, extroverted language. It’s hard to be depressed in Spanish. All those big, musical vowel sounds are like a fiesta taking place in your head. Even if you have to cuss off someone in Spanish, you sound like you are inviting them to an all-night street party with an open bar. 

The teaching of Spanish as a foreign language has also improved a lot since my school days of vocabulary tests, the Vamos Amigos textbook and croaking through verses of “Guantanamera.” The emphasis now is on actually speaking the language even if at first you sound like you are suffering from a bad cough and epileptic fit. Less theory, more practice. From the first class, you will speak Spanish—even if all you manage is how to introduce yourself and find out where the bathroom is located. 

The international translator may not be quite a reality but you can access YouTube from your cell phone, and hear fluent Spanish as often as you like. You can Skype with a language buddy; read digital magazines (try VeinteMundos); and watch Spanish movies and soap operas with subtitles on cable.

You can sign up for free online game-ified immersion tutorials; and repeat the lessons at your own speed without some teacher frowning over your copy book. Combined with a real life teacher motivating you to find your inner Antonio Banderas and Sofia Vergara, you will be impressing bosses and winning new friends in no time. 

By August vacation, you will be able to drop me in the middle of Old Havana (before tourists spoil it with Spanglish and fried chicken outlets) where, without a phrase book, I shall be able to order a meal in a restaurant, find a taxi (especially since it is exactly the same word in Spanish), and spout a bunch of Spanish-as-a-Foreign-Language survival phrases. 

I will say “Hasta luego” instead of “Hasta la vista” which only celluloid stereotype tough guys think is badass Spanish. I will pronounce Z like S instead of the “th” Castilian sound we learned in high school, unless I want to be taken for some colonial outsider. The rumour is that the “th” sound became the standard because a Spanish king had a lisp and everyone wanted to copy him. A treasonous lie, no doubt, but it makes for such a diversionary story when you run out of conversation.

The bartender in Hemingway’s old hang-outs will serve me a mojito, on the house. By sundown, all the cool people will know my name and I’ll be doing the mambo like I’m in a dance movie. Meet me at Plaza la Vieja where you might just capture a supporting role in “mi vida loca.” Chao!
Hablo español en


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