November 4, 2006

Speaking Spanish, sort of

I've mentioned before that my Spanish is not so good. I took lessons for a couple months when we first moved here and had a class in the U.S. before that. The lessons here were very expensive and the quality of some of the teachers was really not up to par for the price. One week of class cost as much as a whole semester at a Texas college.

I have a "Learn to Speak Spanish" CD that is pretty good. It's kind of fun because it has a little radio dial that rates your pronunciation from tourist to native. It seems that every time I got started on it seriously, though, we would have a computer meltdown and now I'm almost afraid to try it again. Besides, since I am a monomaniac, once I start I'll definitely have to cut back on my blogging.

Just so you won't think I'm a complete dummy, I can read Spanish pretty well and write it well enough to be understood. I started by sitting down every morning with the newspaper, my Spanish-English dictionary, and my notebook of words (it helps me to remember when I write down the words and definitions).

At first I would spend almost all day just to read the articles that were the most interesting to me − and I would end up with a pounding headache from the exertion of my brain. After awhile, it wasn't so bad and now I only have to look up a word occasionally when reading the newspaper.

My Spanish spelling is really good! I find misspelled words in the newspaper, signs, and just about everything I read. This is mainly because I know the difference between a 'b' and a 'v', something that many Hondurans don't. You see, a 'b' is pronounced as a 'v' and a 'v' is pronounced as a 'b'. Well, the whole Honduran education system is just shameful, so people really can't be blamed for not learning how to spell − the newspaper, now that's a different story. They should be held to a higher standard.

Having been an excellent student in everything I have ever tried, it is quite shameful to me that I haven't been able to learn Spanish like I should have. Therefore, I just try not to talk to people and embarrass myself. (I know, I know − that's not what I should be doing.)

I understand now why so many people come to the USA and never learn English if they are getting the kind of treatment I get in La Ceiba. But I know that I always tried to understand someone with an accent and never tried to make them feel bad, just like I try to understand some of the really bad English-speakers here without being rude.

There's nothing worse than starting a conversation with someone and watching their eyes glaze over with that pained look, as if trying to understand me is one of the most difficult things they have ever attempted in their lives. Or even worse are the people who just turn their back and walk away, as if there wasn't really any sound coming out of my mouth. It's true, this happens.

Even in the most common of situations, people cannot seem to understand me. For example, in a restaurant the waiter comes up and asks, "what do you want to drink?" I say, "una coca, por favor." (A coke, please.) The waiter looks at me with a blank look and then turns to El Jefe to ask what I said!

How can this be? I mean, in the context of a restaurant, me sitting at the table, and the question asked, how can this be misunderstood? My accent isn't that bad − 'coca' doesn't sound like cerveza (beer) or jugo (juice). The place probably only has five different drinks, so how can the guy be confused? I swear to you that I pronounce 'coca' just like everyone else does.

One time I went into a farmacia (pharmacy) and asked the clerk for a antihistamine. It's almost the same word, antihistamínico, with just a little different pronunciation. It was a large pharmacy and crowded at the time. The clerk shouted across the entire store to another clerk (and I do mean shouted) something to the effect of, "Come over here! I can't understand a word this gringa is saying!" Everyone in the store turned to look at me. I wanted to crawl out.

It is interesting that when I am with Hondurans, they are disgusted at this kind of treatment and say that there is no reason that the people shouldn't have understood what I was saying. One Honduran told me about a friend visiting from the U.S. and that when he was with his friend, he (the Honduran) was constantly telling service people, "Listen to him! Use your brain!"

I will never forget having a conversation (I thought) with one of El Jefe's brothers during my first Spanish class in the USA. I was trying to practice my Spanish with him. He was nodding and smiling, then after about 5 minutes, he said, "Excuse me, are you speaking Spanish or English?" I think that was the start of my downfall.

The first day of Spanish class here, I came home and said to El Jefe's mother, "Buenas tardes. ¿Cómo está?" (Good afternoon. How are you?). She said something like "¡Ay Dios mio! ¡Ella ya esta hablando Español! ¡Que bueno!" (Oh my God! She speaks Spanish already! How good!) That was sweet of her and I was glad to have made her so happy. The problem is that we are now 5 years later and we still haven't progressed beyond that simple greeting. When she comes to visit, after the greeting, I always offer her a juice or Coke, "¿Quiere un jugo o una coca?" And she turns to one of her sons for a translation.

I can laugh at these things but it does hurt. I'm so intimidated that every time I have to speak Spanish, I panic. My mind goes blank and I can't even remember the most basic words, much less the pronunciation.

Even El Jefe gets frustrated and says that he doesn't understand why people don't understand me. There are a few people who have no problem, though, and I'm not sure why. It is true that Hondurans have a very distinct accent and talk very fast. They sure don't sound like the people on Spanish television programs.

Some mistakes are funny. I don't mind laughing at myself. Sometimes I repeat the mistake, just to make people laugh. Here are some examples of some things I have said and what it really meant.

When I was learning the days of the week, I would say "lunes, martes, miercoles, juevos, viernes, sabado, domingo" (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Eggs, Friday, Saturday, Sunday). Thursday is jueves; eggs is juevos. I enjoyed that one so much that I would tell it to El Jefe's little nieces and nephews and other children. Honduran children are generally more polite than North American children. Their eyes would widen and they would stifle a little laugh and gently correct me.

Another one was that I would ask the maid to make tortillas de arena (tortillas of sand). Flour is harina and the 'h' is not pronounced so the words are very similar (a-ray-na versus a-ree-na). The first time or two it was a mistake, but sometimes I would say that just to see the looks on people's faces.

My favorite (and our former maid's favorite) was when I would ask her if she would "pelear las papas" (fight the potatoes). Pelar is peel; pelear is fight. We had (I thought at the time, anyway) a good relationship, so she felt comfortable to correct me and even laugh a little about mistakes.

One of these days, I really need to get back to studying Spanish seriously again. And practicing it.
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