Pixelated Spanish

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March 18, 2017 by Ynnsie

Hola! Dos cervezas, por favor.

Until eight months ago, this was almost all my Spanish. Swap cerveza out for margaritas, ask to be pointed to the washroom, and I was at my limit.

I’d lived a month in Guatemala with my friends Marie-Lucie and Fred, back in 1985. To prepare, I signed up for a  Board of Ed beginners’ Spanish course but had choose between that and passing the tax law bar course.

I started another TDSB course a few years later. Same deal: life too busy. At least there I got a book out of it. For the next 30 years I moved Como Se Dice? around my bookshelves.

Last year, as we designed Plan B to lift us out of the morass, JDG and I decided to learn Spanish in our summer car trip to the West Coast. All we had to do first was sell the house, vanquish the neighbour, move, and download a bunch of audio programs we could feed through the car’s sound system.

As with most things for us in 2016, the language learning didn’t go as planned.

First, there were hundreds of language-learning sites, and I found the  worst. Second, we were distracted by the move and so we didn’t master the technology before we left town. Third, we were exhausted in every way. So we drove to Vancouver and back listening to Jane Austen. Not in Spanish.

In the fall, our friend Valerie McDonald pointed us to Coffee Break Spanish and that’s when our learning began.

I’ve mentioned this podcast series before. It’s put out by  RadioLingua.com who will also teach you French and other languages. Each podcast is about 15 minutes long – coffee break length – and covers only a few points. The lessons build on themselves organically. And Mark and Kara, the teacher and student, are so delightfully chipper, authentic, and Glaswegian!

In the autumn J and I listened and learned separately,with him at the Grand Bend gym or walking the beach, and me driving back and forth from the cottage to Toronto. We pulled out my old Como Se Dice to enhance our learning.

By the time we got to Seville, we were each about 30 lessons in and could string together a few sentences. More importantly, we were getting used to how the language sounds. Not that we could follow  word for word, but we could sometimes grasp enough to make sense of what was being said. Which is just as well because the moment we arrived here, we had all those bureaucratic challenges to meet. Not to go into that again …



Then we found a private teacher through an online classified ad. We love Mercedes. The hour and a half we spend with her four days a week is the highlight of many of those days – and that says a lot, because life is pretty sweet.

She’s got the training and the materials and the attitude. She’s met us at our level. She gives us homework and – best of all – she makes us talk and puzzles out what we’re trying to say. We laugh a lot because we’re so often befuddled, but we’re making progress.

Here’s the thing, though –  we still can’t say some of the most basic things.

On today’s list of things I wished I could say:


  • Where do I get off the bus?
  • This bicycle is broken.
  • When do the trees grow leaves?
  • The weather has heated up. Should I  water the plants on the terrace?
  • Why is there a crowd in the Alameda protesting about public education?
  • Can I add clothes to the washing machine mid-cycle?

Ordinary, useful things.

We can often stumble through a work-around, but it’s taxing on the old brain and probably even more taxing on anyone listening to us.

We’re not bad on grammar (leaving  *&%! pronouns aside) because learning French and German taught us how languages work.  But for speaking, we’re locked into 3 or 4 of the simplest verb tenses (J has filled in more of his virtual verb charts than I have) – and only for a handful of verbs. Prepositions we only guess at, despite Senhor Vampiro. We have the vocabulary of – maybe – a five-year-old.

sr vampiro

Smatterings of the language. Bits and pieces, no depth. Many connecting bits missing. I often feel like a sharp thump to the side of my head might help.

Or, remember the olden days, when we had to defragment our computers periodically to try to reclaim some processing speed?

Your DOS utility would gather up dispersed bits from all over the hard drive and put them together with other similar bits. You could watch the blue bits coming together, and then the red bits, and the green. Et cetera, et cetera for hours.

defrag screen shot

I haven’t a clue what those colours represented, but it was mesmerizing to watch. In the end you had a tidy computer screen. Very rewarding.

My Spanish needs the same treatment. I feel if I could just … defrag … then I could make sense when I open my mouth. If I could fill in the some missing connector pieces, my Spanish wouldn’t feel quite so pixelated.

Barring miracles, there’s no choice but to soldier on, one irregular verb at a time. Todo lo que puedo decir es, gracias a las estrellas por Google Translate.

Screenshot 2017-03-09 22.01.37


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