Late-learning Spanish not easy as ABC

By Helena Rodriguez: Local Columnist

I guess I was destined to learn to speak Spanish late in life like many gringos.

I read last week that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and three other guys who want his job have been busy learning to roll their Rs so they can hablar en español. According to this Associated Press story, many lawmakers on Capitol Hill are also taking weekly language classes, and let’s not forget Los Angeles’ newly elected mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, the city’s first Hispanic head honcho, who beat out an incumbent and is already well-versed in Spanish.

With the fast-growing Hispanic population in the United States, not to mention Latin America, the question these days is not a simple “si” or “no” when it comes to learning Spanish. It’s a question of when.

Cuando?

Add this 37-year-old newspaper columnist to the list of middle-aged Spanish students. Actually, I don’t have much trouble rolling my Rs and I understand much of what people say in Spanish. But I have a severe language deficit when it comes to putting sentences together, particularly in the past and future tenses. And since we can’t live in the here and now forever, I often find myself in trouble when people start talking in Spanish.

I was told last winter by my Spanish teacher, Vitelio Contreras, that I’ve already got a bilingual mind to speak Spanish. I was raised on Spanglish. That should make it a piece of cake to fill in the blanks, right? Wrong. It hasn’t been so easy. So like these politicos, I’m resorting to desperate measures. I’m packing my bags and heading south of the border this summer.

I mentioned my upcoming trip to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico in last week’s column, but I didn’t go into detail. Last summer I set my sights on taking part in this four-week Spanish immersion program with Eastern New Mexico University, under the leadership of Mary Ayala. Since then, I’ve fantasized about swimming with the dolphins and doing the whole tourist thing. But in reality, it won’t be all “bon voyage,” or should I say, “un bien viaje?”

This immersion program will be exactly what it implies, a total immersion into a foreign culture and language. It’s foreign to me because I’ve never been totally immersed in Spanish, which would explain my Spanish-speaking deficit. It’s not the same as my Spanglish world, which consists of listening to a little Spanish music and throwing in a Spanish word or two here and there.

It will be a matter of complete survival in Spanish — something I’ve never had to do, not even as a teenager when Mom and Dad sent my sisters and I to stay with my grandparents in Lubbock. Grandpa Chaya doesn’t speak any English. The idea was for us to learn Spanish, but we cheated. My cousin Esmeralda, who was bilingual, translated for us. But one time when Esmeralda was gone, we literally played a game of charades with Grandma Chaya. We couldn’t figure out what she wanted from the little tienda down the street, even as she held up a box of crackers but moved her hands about to indicate a smaller box.

Grandma Chaya may come to visit this weekend. If so, I will take advantage of the opportunity to work on my Spanish before going to Mexico in July. When I suggested to my 14-year-old daughter, Laura, who is also going with me to Mexico, that Grandma Chaya should stay with us, Laura was like, “But we won’t understand her!” And I was like, “Duh! That’s the whole point!”

It’s easier to learn to speak Spanish when you have no choice, as these politicos are finding out. I feel like I no longer have a choice either. I want to have conversations in Spanish with Grandma Chaya before it’s too late. I also want to begin work on a Ph.D. in intercultural communication in the fall of 2006. And in this increasingly globalized economy, you too may soon find yourself sounding like that old Spanish-speaking Taco Bell dog, who was ahead of his time, and say, “Yo quiero hablar en español!”

Helena Rodriguez is a columnist for Freedom Newspapers of New Mexico. She can be reached at: helena_rodriguez@link.freedom.com