Picking Up Palabras

¡Hola! ¿Cómo está?

These were the first words I learned in Spanish. All last year I promised myself that once the wedding madness was over, I was going to treat myself to an intensive language course. I registered online for a class, only to be left hanging at the last minute because the school didn’t attract the minimum numbers to run with it. It was too late to enrol in another one.

So I turned to the iPad and downloaded a couple of programs. One caught my eye right away:

“Hey gringo, learn Spanish!”

Perfecto. And particularly useful because it taught Argentinean Spanish. I feel that little bit more ready to understand them when we get there, though I had to put the kibosh on saying poh-shoh for chicken and kah-shay for street while we’re in Chile.

It was slow going, of course. By the time we reached Santiago I could greet people and ask for things: tickets, food, the time, the bathroom. All in my white girl accent. With this I feel I’ll struggle for a long time. My mother tried for years to teach me how to roll my r’s when I was a kid. The “R-r-r-uffles have r-r-r-idges” potato chip commercials became somewhat of a joke between us. Now in my early thirties, I still can’t do it. I’ll have to leave those rolling r words for John.

People in Santiago would respond to our attempts in English. We were surprised on arrival at how many people spoke English and were told not to expect that as we headed south. I think we’ve only encountered two English-speaking Chileans since then. No matter. After two days we didn’t bother asking people if they spoke our language anymore – we just jumped right in.

Every day we’re learning new words. Yesterday at a bar the waitress brought us popcorn with our drinks.

“¿Cómo se dice en espanol?” I asked, pointing at the bowl.

“Pal-o-mi-tas,” she said slowly with a smile. Walking back to the bar she laughed to herself as she told the old Chilean gentleman sitting in the corner that she was teaching us the word for popcorn (he had been staring at us intently). At least that’s what I think she said. She could have been laughing at me but it didn’t seem her style.

We are learning that the Chileans are amazing people. So friendly, so patient and tremendously hospitable.

Maybe it’s the fact that we’re really making an effort. Our broken Spanish must sound even more dreadful than the English of some Asian shopkeepers we encounter in Australia. I always have time for foreigners struggling with the language when I’m at home. I know how it feels.

One of the wonderful things about struggling with the language is the way it seems to endear us to some people. Bus station employees speak back to us slowly in Spanish so we can understand them. There is no condescension there, they are really trying to help us out. We are always met with smiles, ever happy to amuse. Waiters in restaurants bend over backwards to please us. When we say “buenísimo” after a delicious meal (and we’ve had so many), they seem chuffed.

In Talca we arrived without a map and wandered for a few blocks in the post-work crush before surrendering ourselves to the information counter at a grocery store for directions. Moments later an enthusiastic staff member gave us directions to the tourism bureau (where we could find a map, claro!), gave us change for a 10,000 peso note and negotiated a ride to our accommodation with a grandfatherly gentleman hanging out in front of the store.

We’ve had moments of hilarity as well. At a seafood restaurant we ordered an appetizer they had run out of. We asked for more time to choose another. Moments later the waiter returned with a plate of different items and put it down in front of us. He went through everything, pointing and telling us what they were. Some of the fish looked raw but there was ceviche in the middle. We’d been discussing the ceviche. Brilliant! He must have overheard us and brought over some kind of chef’s sampler plate. He left it with us when he went away, so we put lemon on everything and dug in.

A couple of minutes later he returned.

“No, no, no,” he exclaimed, whisking the plate away. ¡Que horror! It wasn’t cooked, he said. John said later that I looked completely shocked.

“¿Necessito el médico?” I asked.

“No, no. It’s ok.” He smiled warmly and reassured us. After that we had an amazing meal with no further drama. Often we can speak more than we understand.

A certain degree of humility is required when learning a language.

Last night we were the only people at a pizza restaurant. The menu said Argentinean pizza – how could we resist? I’ve read that the pizzas there are excellent because of all the Italian immigrants. It was probably the best pizza we’ve had in years. After the meal we had an actual conversation with the owners in Spanish. It was very limited, but we learned that they were from Mendoza originally and we told them we were from Australia and about our travels. There was laughter, handshakes and kisses at the end. It was our most successful encounter with locals yet. Imagine feeling so happy just to be able to communicate.

¡Mucho gusto, South America! We can only improve from here.

What are some of your experiences with a new language in a new country? If you speak it, help us learn by commenting in Spanish (all comments welcome, though!)

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