Learning to say ole the slow and steady way

Corte en dos partes, por favor," I asked the swarthy man behind the sandwich counter. Perhaps it should have been Cortelo, to put the long, crusty, delicious French roll into the sentence.

Still, there in the Paris train station last summer, when English drew blank stares and my lone year of college French was long-forgotten, my limited Spanish brought a smile and a sandwich cut in halves. My husband and I left the station in good spirits, and I had one more reason to be glad I'd studied Spanish.

Mine had been a self-study course, prompted by students who called to each other in Spanish as they entered my classroom. Though I'd long planned to take a Spanish class at night, I hadn't found the time. Finally, I bought a Spanish language tape and went to work.

"El ... senor ... Gomez ... es ... un ... abogado," began the tape. Each time, in the pause that followed, I dutifully repeated the words. Soon, though, I grew impatient with Senor Gomez, even if he was "un abogado." The tape was driving me nuts! Nobody spoke Spanish at that slow, measured pace. I wouldn't be able to understand anything but the tape when I was done!

While listening in my car one day, I impatiently switched to Spanish radio.

Wow! Spanish at warp speed! As it whistled by me, one familiar word found my ear: "abogado." That was my word! Someone, somewhere out in radioland, was talking about a lawyer. I couldn't have been more pleased if Senor Gomez himself had addressed me personally.

The radio was for me! If I could understand that, I could understand Spanish as it was actually spoken. Knowing I needed some knowledge of grammar, also, I begged a set of Spanish teacher editions from a friend and began working my way through the exercises. At the same time, I continued to listen to Spanish radio.

Ah-h-h. Musica romantica. Ah-ha! Musica ranchera! I loved both and could listen to the same song dozens of times over ... and had to before the words began to fall in place. Announcers with clear enunciation and commercials with catchy refrains also helped build my vocabulary.

I began using Spanish words in my Algebra 2 class. I lent out lapiz and papel instead of pencil and paper and spoke of tarea as I wrote the homework assignment on the board. All was smooth until I tried to go beyond that.

"Buenos dias, caballo!" I cheerfully greeted a student in the hallway one morning.

He stopped, indignant. "Mrs. Flower, you just called me a horse!"

"Lo siento! Lo siento mucho!" I said, laughing. "Caballero!" Of course I'd meant to say "gentleman" the first time.

Before long, my husband and I were attending Mexican movies at a nearby theater. Most helpful were action movies where the "bad guys," with their heavy leather and surly manners, spoke simply. "Sigame" ("Follow me") was my idea of a good sentence.

Next came a trip to Guadalajara, where families, flowers, food vendors, and music filled the plaza on warm summer nights. Using my limited Spanish was fun! Taxi drivers, waiters, vendors, maids.... I communicated with all of them! The theater manager and his wife, in town to visit her parents, invited us for refreshments.

When I found myself able to converse with the mother-in-law, I almost thought I was bilingual! Until she asked: "Le gustaren las odas?"

Odas? Odas? What was an oda? My tongue froze as my mind cast about for some clue. The question was repeated once, then twice.

Finally, the manager's wife whispered to me, "Did you like the sodas?"

Ah-h-h. "Las sodas!"

"Si, si, muchas gracias," I said in relief.

I'd been expecting Spanish words!

Embarrassing moments? Si. But they passed; the benefits remained.

I Learned to understand the friendly greetings called across my classroom. I learned to recognize insults (much to my students' surprise) and to talk with parents. Because I so frequently sought the help of Spanish teachers, I became well acquainted with them.

As a result, my husband and I were included on Spanish Club field trips. Confetti eggs thrown on Olvera Street at Christmas meant I was still shaking colored bits of paper from my jacket hood at Easter, but that was part of the fun!

In short, I learned enough basic Spanish to carry on a 10-minute conversation - if I have half an hour to do it. (I think it's the early influence of Senor Gomez that keeps my pace slow.)

Oh! I also learned enough to get a long, crusty sandwich cut in half at a Paris train station.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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