I signed up for a Spanish language immersion class that was to begin within minutes of me stepping off the plane. Minutes. I arrived at Don Quijote Language School on Monday morning, having flown all day Sunday. I arrived at my apartment just as the Mediterranean sun was beginning to set and slept but a wink and a half that night. I was ready. Well, as ready as one can be on no sleep, in a foreign country and ever so slightly topsy turvy having crossed the Atlantic a mere 8 hours before.
After announcing my arrival, I began with a test to see how much of my high school Spanish (read: very long time ago) I actually could recall. I must have done pretty well, because they put me in an advanced level class that skipped the perfunctory "Hola Señora, me llamo Suzanne", bolted right past the present tense (I mean, who speaks in the present, anyway?) and landed right smack in the middle of the preterito perfecto, imperfecto and marched forward towards the illusary imperitivo.
The dreaded past tense.
Anyone who has ever studied language knows that there are stages of aquisition. Babies start out with "mama" and "dada". They don't jump right to reciting the Gettysburg Address. No, they take their time. "This is a dog. Can you say dog?" and sentence structure... "I want cookie" and over time; months, years, even a decade or two, language develops.
Why did I expect it to happen in a week?
From the moment I entered my classe and met los otros estudiantes desde Alemaña, Suissa y Brasilia (Germany, Switzerland and Brazil), Manel, our illustrious teacher, began speaking en español. Nada mås en ingles. Solamente in español. I mean, after all, it was an immersion class. That's what I signed up for. This, apparently was the level I tested in at.
So there I was, feeling every bit the remedial student I was, struggling to figure out even the smallest piece of the conversation at hand. "Holachicosychicas,soyManel.Comotellamaydígameunpoquitosobreustedes." H.o.l.a C.h.i.c.o.s. (Shoot. What does chicos mean again?) S.o.y. M.a.n.e.l. (OK. His name is Manel. Good.) C.o.m.o. t.e. l.l.a.m.a.s. y d.í.g.a.m.e. u.n. p.o.q.u.i.t.o. s.o.b.r.e. u.s.t.e.d.e.s. (What is your name and tell me a little bit about yourselves.)
And then the fun starts. It's not enough to sort of know what someone has just said to you (Emphasis on the "sort of"). You have to answer back. You have to answer the question. You have to say something.
H.o.l.a. M.a.n.e.l. Y.o. s.o.y. S.u.z.a.n.n.e. S.o.y. u.n.a. p.r.o.f.e.s.s.o.r.a. d.e. p.s.i.c.o.l.ó.g.i.a.
Buzzzzzzzzz! Wrong. Evidently, when noting one's profession, one does not use "una" or "uno". One simply says, "Soy professora de psicológia."
Oh god. Here we go.
When I was in high school, long, long ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I studied Spanish. Lots of Spanish. Four years of Spanish and two more in junior high. In fact, I was the president (for a short time) of the Spanish Honor Society, a little known fact that, until recently, had even escaped my own memory until I was reminded of it by my Vice President and oldest friend in the world. Evidently, I could make my way around this particular romance language with some degree of proficiency.
Evidently, this particular skill came with an expiration date that has since passed.
It was an eventful week. Each day I'd sit in Spanish class, feeling large chunks of my self esteem crumble mercilessly to the ground. Every day Manel and then Oscar, reviewed vocabulary and tenses that I vaguely remembered; the pasado perfecto, the pasado imperfecto, the imperativo and when to use each. The cobwebs rattled. The dust poofed into my cognitive recesses. Please let it be somewhere. Please let that stuff be somewhere.
There were moments that I was sure I was the only one in the entire class who had no idea what was going on. My tenses were all screwed up. I went, I'm going to go, I am... UGH! I have no idea what the right way to say this is.
Not to mention the small fact that I was getting no more than 2-3 hours of sleep a night, my circadian clock completely shattered by the trans-Atlantic journey and the heat of the Spanish summer evening.
On day three, I had had enough. It was the second part of the class. Manel, as he had done each of the past three days, gave us a break to get a café con leche at the nearby cafe and upon arriving back in room 102, Oscar took over.
Only Oscar started speaking Chinese. Or at least that was how it sounded.
Evidently, I had hit the proverbial wall. I bowed my head and tried not to cry. I was completely and totally overwhelmed.
Barcelona is an interesting city. It is, of course, in Spain so Spanish is the national language, but Catalán is the official language of the region. Catalán is not Spanish. It's a wierd cross between a number of different sounding languages and it is the preferred language of these proud people. The menus are all in Catalån. The road signs are in Catalán. The instructions for the metro are, you guessed it, in Catalán.
People speak Spanish, of course, and many of them speak English. At least, enough to get by. But the language of this beautiful city is Catalán first and Spanish second and the way to experience life here is to learn the language. It is something I am determined to do.
Somehow I made it through that week. By Friday, I was beginning to sleep through the night, a small factor that would have likely helped me recall even the smallest lessons from la hermana Shaun's Advanced Spanish class, but it was not to be. I finished my immersion class feeling like a failure. Fully frustrated that I was no closer to being able to hold a conversation than I was when I began. The only thing that had changed was that the illusion was shattered. It was going to take an awful lot of work to become conversant.
And work I have done. Each day, I listen to my "Notes in Spanish" podcast. Twice. Each day I practice my vocabulary, forming sentences and practicing when I can, ordering tapas or buying batteries or asking for directions. Often the response comes in English from someone who is trying to be helpful.
I respond in Spanish, because I am determined to learn this beautiful language. I am determined to hear the words of the Catalán people. Their words. About their country. Maybe not in their native tongue, but in the next best thing.
Tomorrow I start an intercambio, an opportunity to practice Spanish with a young woman who is willing to help. In return, I will give her the opportunity to practice English. I can't wait.
I will stumble and struggle, use the wrong verb tense and a limited vocabulary. My confidence will be challenged and knowing me, I might even cry. In the end, I'm going to learn this language, come hell or high water and through this process, I'll learn about these amazing people. I'll learn how to speak the culture.
And if I'm lucky, I might even make a friend.