There’s a certain amount of self-discovery tied into my current effort to learn Spanish, and reminders of past failings.
I’ve hurled myself into the enterprise. We’re doing four weeks at the Ixbalanque Spanish School here, which means four hours a day of one-on-one instruction, and a home stay to immerse us in the language. Total immersion brings, as you would expect, frequent feelings of drowning.
My Spanish is close to non-existent - enough to get by in frequent travels to Mexico, buttressed with some continuing ed classes half-heartedly attended a decade ago.
But now I am battling with conjugations and objectivos indirectos and an astonishing number of verbos irregulares. While, at the same time, trying to build a large enough vocabulary to be able to actually say what I’m thinking. And I’m trying to comprehend what now sounds mostly like a stream of syllables when people speak to me.
It’s humbling to trundle in each morning with my homework, and to stare uncomprehendingly as mi maestra explains fine points of grammar in Spanish. (The teachers mostly speak little English, and in any case won’t, as that’s part of the school’s approach.)
And it’s painful to be reminded so belatedly of my undistinguished early school career. I was always been astoundingly poor at memory work, as we used to call it. Partly, I didn’t care enough to bother. Partly, I am genuinely bad at it.
I am self-diagnosed with prosopagnosia - the inability to remember faces. I spent four hours a day for a week with my first Spanish teacher here, than failed to recognize her on the street 10 days later. When I was leaving a newspaper after three years for another job, I went through the building bidding farewell to my coworkers, although I had no idea who most of them were. That was established clearly when I thanked a guy in the mailroom for the pleasure of working with him over the last three years and he said he was just there for the morning to fix a machine. I think it might have undermined my effort for the people who actually worked there and witnessed the encounter. (My form, if it’s real and not just an excuse for a lack of interest in others, is mild. Oliver Sacks wrote in the New Yorker of walking past the psychiatrist he had been visiting three times a week for years, in the doctor’s office building, without recognizing him.)
Memorization isn’t a personal impossibility. Miss Mewha, my Grade 4 teacher at Willow Glen Public School, demanded my parents torture me for months with flash cards of the times tables. I’ve been eternally grateful. With a command of the multiplication tables and recognition that an approximate answer is good enough, you are more numerate than the vast majority of people.
And it is easy for me to retain facts that have a context. As a a manager, I could readily recall facts and figures about business performance, and I can do the same as a journalist when I’m immersed in a topic.
But learning Spanish means rote memorization. There’s no other way. I am plunged into a world in which my greatest weakness is a necessary competency.
The experience is also a reminder of another quality that bedeviled my early school career - a casual, unintended sloppiness. When Fernanda, this week’s teacher, goes through my homework, she finds errors in things that I know cold. I leave letters out of words as I race to complete the assignment, or use the wrong verb form even when I know the right answer. Fortunately, in this school, they don’t do report cards with comments like “Paul is not working up to his potential,” a frequent theme in the old days.
I persevere, even though some days the task seems impossible. These people have 14 different verb tenses. They have two very different verbs for to slap someone in the face, my partner noted the other day, apparently with slightly different meanings. We’re for a year or two and, I hope, will be in Spanish-speaking countries after that. I want to be able to talk with people about what’s going on in their lives, read the papers and do some reporting. (Carefully, as that can be risky here.)
And I’m liking the experience of being so far out off my depth. Like most people of a certain age, I haven’t faced a whole lot of totally new challenges in a long time. I’ve changed jobs and moved to new cities and travelled and raised kids.
But while those things were challenging, they mostly called for skills I had, or could acquire. I knew I could do them reasonably well. (Or I though I could, which is the same thing.
That’s true for most people. There are always new things to learn, but we tend to have the background and skill set to be pretty sure we can figure them out or fake them.
Learning Spanish isn’t like that. I’m struggling to get better, fighting my weaknesses, and, often, coming out on the losing side.
And it’s actually pretty good to find myself in the deep end, without knowing if I can swim. If nothing else, it’s an experience that focuses the mind in a most energizing way.