The key to Castellano, from a toddler

Arrived in argentina with a 100-word Spanish vocabulary, a desire to learn, and unlimited confidence. Two days later, I was exhausted and discouraged. I had underestimated how different everything - language, food, money, housing, and transportation - would be. More important, I'd forgotten that learning requires tremendous energy.

Everywhere I went, I had to concentrate on words, tones, and cadence. I watched facial expressions, hand gestures, and body language; I observed actions and reactions. I searched for clues that would tell me what to do, how to act, and where to go. I stared at signs and tried to conjugate verbs I'd forgotten in the 30 years since my high school Spanish classes. I opened menus and realized that the 50 words I'd learned at my favorite Mexican restaurant had no relevance in the land of bife de chorizo and dulce de leche.

Although I could ask questions, I couldn't understand the answers. I prefaced each conversation with an apology: "My Spanish is very bad. Please speak slowly." The small satisfaction I experienced at being able to explain my inadequacies turned to chagrin when a local reminded me that Argentinians don't speak Spanish; they speak Castellano. Vos instead of tu; "Zhh," not "yy," for the double "L." I humbly corrected my disclaimer.

Each day I looked up words I thought I might need, but despite my best efforts I always overlooked something. I pulled into a gas station and realized I had no idea how to say "Fill 'er up." I was madly searching for my phrase book, last seen on the kitchen table, when the attendant reached my car. "Todo," I blurted, And pointed to the gas tank. "Todo con supra." All with super.

"Jayno?" asked the man.

"S," I replied, and hoped he didn't sense my panic. I had no idea what I'd agreed to. As I watched, he filled the tank with super. I smiled. The man smiled. Then I drove home and grabbed my dictionary from the kitchen table.

"Jay no," I muttered, paging through the book. Nothing relevant under "J." Yet I was certain he'd said "jay no," like "Jay Leno" said very fast. Or maybe it was "Z" instead of "J." I flipped to the back of the book. Nothing appropriate under "Z." Then I had a flash of understanding, a thrill that jolted like electricity. Castellano, not Spanish. Double "L's" that sound like the French "J." Yes. Ye-es! There it was. Lleno - fill 'er up.

The next time I pulled into a gas station I said very confidently, "Lleno con supra." The attendant did as requested! No confusion, no questions. I hugged myself with smug delight. Then my companion said, "Ask him to check the oil," and I was overwhelmed by all I didn't know.

One day while shopping, I picked up a baby's storybook. Each of its thick cardboard pages was printed with a picture in primary colors and one simple declarative sentence. On the first page I encountered words beyond my vocabulary. "Tengo un balde amarillo. Tengo un." "I have a...." I looked at the drawing of a small child with a yellow pail. I have a yellow pail! I grinned; I giggled. I stopped, embarrassed by my excitement. What was so wonderful about adult logic catching up with toddler comprehension?

During a weekend trip with friends, I listened to lyrical Castellano sprinkled with English, and I found myself envying their two-year-old daughter. Not because little Clara was growing up bilingual, but because I wanted her privileges. I knew how to say "yellow pail," but I doubted I'd ever encounter a social situation where I could triumphantly interject that phrase. No one wanted me to interrupt an intelligent discussion about Argentina's economic policy or its military history with a shout of "balde amarillo!" Clara, however, was under no such constraint. She shouted and chattered. She sang and asked questions, then repeated her questions. If Clara had yelled "balde amarillo," we would have stopped our conversation. "I see your yellow pail," someone would have said. "What a pretty yellow pail. I have a blue pail." How I yearned to speak of yellow pails.

That Sunday we drove down a long valley in the Patagonian foothills. Ranches dotted the rolling land, and sheep, cattle, and horses grazed in spring-green pastures. "Vaca," Clara said, and pointed. "Yes," I agreed, "cow." At the next pasture Clara shouted, "Mas vacas." "Mas vacas," I agreed. "Muchas vacas," she squealed. "Muchas vacas," I sighed. It was going to be a long day if every cow elicited such shrill glee.

At last we came to a paddock with horses. "Caballos! " Clara shouted. I had tired of the game and merely smiled and nodded. Clara leaned over, blocking my view of anything but her small face and enunciated, "Hor-ses."

As I gazed into her earnest brown eyes, I realized that Clara was giving me a gift far more splendid than a single word. She was imparting a linguistic secret more magical than a large vocabulary, more exquisite than perfect pronunciation. It was the freedom to speak of yellow pails. It was the power of joy.

Clara shouted "cow!" and didn't worry that she couldn't ask about grazing practices or international beef markets. She delighted in her knowledge and didn't lament what she could not say. She rejoiced in her accomplishments - "Vacas, mas vacas, muchas vacas!" - and I too had a right, even an obligation, to savor mine.

ARMED with a ready laugh and a willingness to make a fool of myself, I started over. A clerk in a candy store patiently taught me how to say "semisweet." Willy, at our local market, corrected my numerical mistakes in exchange for the latest American slang. On a road trip with Argentinian friends I had everyone laughing uproariously as I tried to say "Hola" without my North American drawl.

I stammered our way through police checkpoints, negotiated for car repairs, and inflicted my ungrammatical Castellano on anyone willing to listen. In return I got a big thumbs-up from an ice cream vendor when "chocolate con almendras" rolled from my tongue with precisely the right cadence and a correctly trilled "R." A laughing chef in an Italian restaurant entertained us with magic tricks, and in a rural hardware store where we bought fuel for our camp stove, everyone - customers, owners, and relatives who'd been eating lunch in the back room - shook our hands and wished us "Buena suerte."

I was still full of questions I could not ask, but instead of fretting I joked that I knew just enough Castellano to get in trouble. I remembered Clara, and I relaxed. I rejoiced. I had fun. It was as simple as Ileno, as basic as vacas, as delightful as a yellow pail.

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