Yesterday I registered to take Spanish classes two afternoons a week, starting next week and for the rest of the month of June, at Escuela Mexicana, a charming language school here in Guanajuato, Mexico. Until then, I’ll happily continue to communicate in what I’m calling “the language of smiles.”
Here and now, I find, I’m taking my approach to language acquisition far more lightly than I did twenty years ago as a newbie Peace Corps Volunteer in Francophone Gabon, Africa.
Then and there, at the age of fifty, and newly arrived from a twenty-year stretch of life in high-stress NYC, I agonized over my inability to communicate with the people in my remote town, Lastoursville, in the local lingua franca, French. I got frustrated. I cried.
As I recounted in my memoir of that time and place, How to Cook a Crocodile (Peace Corps Writers 2010), whenever I attempted a conversation, I would begin like this:
“Lentement, s’il vous plait” (slowly, please), I would beg, sheepishly trying to cover up the tears welling in my eyes and pressing my hand down, as if applying breaks. Please, please speak more slowly.
And invariably the African who was speaking to me would say kindly, knowingly, empathetically, “Ah, oui. ‘Petit a petit l’oiseau fait son nid.'” (Little by little the bird builds his nest.)
I learned an important lesson from those wise Africans, not just about language acquisition but about life in general, which I’ve tried to apply ever since: Take it easy, for goodness’ sake. Take it slow.
So that’s become my approach to learning Spanish now.
In her delightful new book, This is Mexico: Tales of Culture and Other Complications (She Writes Press 2015), Carol M. Merchasin tells of her experience learning Spanish:
“…What I lack in aptitude, I try to overcome with persistence. That endears me to Mexicans, who are not like the French, who are said to be contemptuous of anything less than an expert attempt to communicate. No, Mexicans will smile like delighted grandparents, clapping, cooing, and astonished at the progress you have made in butchering their language” (179).
Last week, when Ramiro, a lovely Mexican man who speaks excellent English (thanks to seventeen years spent in L.A. when he was young), picked me up at the Leon airport and brought me to this beautiful mountainside casa, he taught me this: “The two most important Spanish words you need to know,” he said, “are necessito, I need, and quiero, I want.”
How brilliant, I thought, to begin by knowing the words that express the two main human motivators!
I put my new vocabulary list to the test last Monday in centro. At the Mercado Hidalgo, a huge, Quonset-hut-shaped building filled with dozens and dozens of stalls selling all sorts of goods, edible and otherwise, I approached one merchant and said, “Buenas tardes, señor. Necessito…” and then I pulled my long hair back, twisted it up, turned and indicated with my free hand something that would hold my hair in place.
He smiled and pointed to a pile of large, colorful, plastic hair clips at the far end of his stall.
I smiled. “Que bueno!” I said and bought four in different colors.
He smiled and thanked me.
We connected. We communicated perfectly. Everyone in the world, I’ve learned, even pre-verbal infants, understands the language of smiles.
(To find Escuela Mexicana, bear right at the statue of Don Quixote. That’s me and Don yesterday:)