Our Own Version of “Me Talk Pretty One Day”

One of my all time favorite authors is David Sedaris. If you don’t know him and his amazing body of work, please stop reading this blog immediately and get yourself to your nearest bookstore (preferably an independent) and buy ALL of his precious books.  You will laugh so hard you will pee your pants.  He writes short stories about life and they are brilliant.  My all time favorite story is Me Talk Pretty One Day about his experience learning French in Paris and how all of the foreign students, with no common language amongst them, would stand around and try and console each other in their childlike and broken French.  I love it because I lived it, too.  But I love it now, too, because I see our own version of this story playing out here in Santiago as we slowly learn Spanish.  Different from Sedaris’ story, our teachers are kind and patient and generous.  And for the first 2-3 weeks so were we.  But as the weeks have progressed, frustration has grown.  And to be really blunt (and completely immodest), I’m actually kick ass at learning Spanish. I don’t care if I sound like a child or an idiot, I talk to everyone all the time here. And I lean heavily on my brain’s experience and knowledge of French, a language that is very similar to Spanish.

And so, when I speak of frustrations growing, I speak mostly of my sweet husband.  A man who is brilliant in so many ways.  Who is a tremendous provider for his family.  Brilliant at his work.  But, very frustrated with learning Spanish.  But, so are others.   In my grammar class today when the professor asked us all how we were doing, I just went ahead and launched into it. Como se dice, “fed up”?  Because I am. I’m tired of Chile, I said in broken Spanish.  And I could tell I had compatriots in the room. I could tell that very easily I could lead a revolt.  Fuck Spanish!  There is this fellow from Australia who is likely brilliant in English but is painfully bad in Spanish. And an Austrian who has been here weeks and the poor young kid cannot even answer basic questions. It is painful to witness. It is humiliating to be that person.  When leaving school today I saw classmates hanging out on the terrace and I overhead some conversations about the frustrations of Spanish: “But why do they conjugate it that way.” “This part makes no sense to me.” “This is simply a trick.”  And I knew precisely what they were talking about and why they felt that way because it does make no sense and it is a trick and we feel so duped by these grand dreams we had that we could learn if we just applied ourselves.  I felt the same way in week five when they taught me that you MUST use the formal version of “you” when speaking to say, your friend’s parents.  Mind you this is WEEK FIVE! I’ve been living here and speaking to all these strangers DAILY using the INFORMAL you.  I was SO mad at my teacher and the school. How could they?  Why didn’t they tell me this, oh, I don’t know, THE FIRST DAY?  So, I immediately wrote my friend’s parents an email apologizing for insulting them the entire weekend we stayed with them at Cajon del Maipo.  Seriously.

Learning a second language is exasperating.  And humiliating.  And wonderful.

So, today, while the kids are napping, I can tell that Josh is frustrated. He is quietly fuming as he cleans the potatoes in the kitchen sink. He is not speaking but he is taking it out on those poor Chilean potatoes.  Then, and I’m waiting for it, he turns to me and says, “in your infinite wisdom…” (and now I know that maybe the fury is going to be directed to me because….what infinite wisdom?)…”how does “hay que” mean “es necesario?”  And I feel the laughter bubbling up inside me and I cannot stop it and it spills over and all of a sudden I am laughing so hard I am crying!  Because I do not know but, hey, just go with it.  Ok.  So.  Friends, this has been going on for weeks.  Josh gets really frustrated with learning Spanish because it doesn’t always translate into English.  And he is a very analytical man.  He actually hates learning Spanish and is very hurt and mad and frustrated that he’s not at all as good at learning Spanish as he imagined he would be.  For sure, FOR SURE, he is wonderful at learning Spanish but one thing about my husband is that he has enormously high standards of himself (and for others).

And so, I tell him, “babe, sometimes it just doesn’t translate.  And why should it have to translate TO English, why don’t we walk around and say, why can’t we have this same expression in English?”  He is so mad about this very point.  That these people told him what “hay” and “que” meant and then they fucking combined them and they mean something else altogether when combined!  The outrage!   And, he claims, others in his class were outraged by this concept too.

We’ve both accused our teachers of duplicity.  Of purposely holding out on us, not giving us the knowledge when we needed it most.


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