Friday, February 10, 2012

Drowning in Spanish total immersion

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.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Happy birthday, Ismael

There’s a lot that can be said about the downside of the home-stay experience. But I won’t say it; after all, nine-year-old Carlos is learning English and is Jody’s Facebook friend. (Though I did write about the noise here.)
But the upsides can be good too.
Ismael, Esmeralda’s husband and the patriarch of our three-family cluster, came home Thursday for his birthday weekend. He’s a big, burly cheerful guy with a greyish crew cut and a big smile revealing widely spaced teeth. Ismael fixes heavy equipment on road projects, and goes where the work is. Right now, he’s in La Florida, a town near here, and comes back every few weeks.
His birthday was Friday. The custom here is that you kick off the day with a noisy celebration to awake the birthday person. That meant fireworks in the street at 5 a.m., a blaring boom box and some accordion music from Jody for an appreciative Ismael, who seems a music buff. The neighbours seemed fine with it; people get up early here for work. (The morning celebrations can get even more elaborate; my Spanish teacher said here husband got the village futbol team to sing outside her window one year.)
The big birthday fiesta was yesterday. “Carne,” said Carlos happily.
We walked through the woods outside the ruins in the morning, went to the Tigo store and were told for the sixth time that USB Internet sticks would be in manana, sat in the square and then made our way up the hill home. It’s an impressive cobbled hill; people in the Barrio Buena Vista either shop in the neighbourhood or develop strong legs.
We went up on the roof, me to read on my Kobo, Jody to play accordion.
Marlene, a 10-year-old cousin who lives in Santa Rita, about five kilometres away, was here for the fiesta and came up on the roof, plunked herself in a little chair and listened intently to the music. After a while, she switched her attention to me and I had my longest sustained conversation in Spanish, on the price of my sandals, the Kobo, her school, my kids and a bunch of other topics.
It turned out Marlene is the sister of Deanna, the 15-year-old who lives with us and helps out around the house. Her father is dead, Marlene told me. He drank some beer, dove into a river and hit his head. (Jody heard the same story, without the beer reference.)
By then, preparations were in full swing. There was a giant piece of beef - probably three feet long and eight inches in diameter - that was being trimmed and cut into strips, and beans were cooking over the outdoor wood stove. A table and chairs were set up in the courtyard between two houses, where a car is usually parked.
I sat down outside the kitchen with Ismael, Carlos (the 10-year-old) and Jorge, his uncle, and listened, largely uncomprehending, to a serious discussion of the failings of Barcelona in its match that afternoon. Ismael offered me glass of Johnny Walker Black - he had what I took to be a birthday bottle, still in its cardboard box, beside him. Those are tough decisions for a stranger in a new land. Is it bad form to take the birthday’s special treat, especially when it’s a giant expense for people of modest means? Or it insulting to say no?
I balanced the cultural concerns with my fondness for scotch and said yes. But just one glass.
Meanwhile, Jorge had dragged out a homemade steel barbecue and started scrubbing the round grill with water from the pila. (Have I mentioned pilas? They’re big concrete water outdoor tanks, with an open top and a tap. On one side, there’s a ridged flat surface - like a washboard - for scrubbing clothes or washing dishes. The function is partly to store water for household chores for when the supply runs out.)
He dumped a bag of charcoal - real charcoal, not little briquettes, into the grill on top of a garbage bag, doused it in diesel and set it on fire. A styrofoam tub and another garbage bag were placed on top, plastic apparently being an approved accelerant.
A light was strung from the neighbour’s house - and then the power went out.
So candles and flashlights and an almost full moon provided light as guests began to arrive, too rapidly for me to figure out who was who, except for a couple of Ismael’s brothers. But I sat at the table, tried halting phrases, and smiled agreeably. The power came back on.
After a head-spinning visit, I checked out the barbecue, now laden with strips of marinated meat tended by Jorge. The meal - beans, beef, cheese, grilled green onions, salsa, crema and tortillas - was amazing.
The food and the guests kept coming, and Jody played accordion to an enthusiastic audience. By 10, we were fading and headed to our room. As we settled in, the Honduran music started up again on the portable stereo.
Except the trumpet rang through too clearly, too brightly, for a recording.
Luis, the newest son-in-law (he married Carena, whose husband had been murdered in San Pedro Sula) had gone done to the square and hired the mariachis who play on Saturday night to come up to the house. Trumpet, accordion, two guitars and one of those big-bellied accoustic six-string basses that anchor mariachi bands. The singers were good and the songs passionate, and they played for more than an hour.
By the end of the night, the Johnny Walker Black bottle was empty and Ismael happy.