At least now I know how to talk about monkey brains in Spanish

Midlife Sentence | Language Learning, Spanish

Whenever somebody says something in Spanish and any member of my immediate family is with me in earshot, I’m usually quizzed about what was said.

I’ve been engaged in a very casual study of the language for years, and folks around here have way more confidence in my ability than they should. I think it would be generous to say I can comprehend about as much Spanish as can be taught a moderately intelligent Labrador retriever. You know: most basic commands and some stuff relating to food.

Twelve years ago I spent four weeks in Argentina as part of an exchange program. To prepare, I took months of Spanish classes with a native speaker and spent every waking moment trying to read short stories and magazines in Spanish, watching telenovelas and Spanish Sesame Street, and listening to tutorial CDs in my car. As anyone who has tried to upload an entire language into her grey matter in this amount of time can tell you, this was not enough to become anything close to fluent. But I tried.

A month in Buenos Aires gave me a healthy appreciation for how it feels when you can’t express yourself in a manner more sophisticated than that of a toddler, but I also figured out I love Spanish, and just the process of studying a language in general.

I kept studying. I’m still not fluent, mind you, but that doesn’t stop me from faking it in front of my family when I have the opportunity:

Me (to waiter): Senior … los pimientos con la pizza … son calientes?
(translation: Sir, the peppers with the pizza, are they horny?)

Waiter: ¿Uh … picante? No.
(Spicy? No.)

Me: Ah, picante, por supuesto. Este es un restaurante para familias, no?
(Yes, spicy, of course [wink, wink], this is a family restaurant, is it not?)

My kids: Wow mom, your Spanish is great!

Recently, Mike started taking a Spanish course. His approach to language learning, just like his approach to pretty much everything, is quite different from mine. It involves examining whatever it is from every angle, pondering it, exploring the history and cultural relevance of it, talking to people about it, mulling over it.

Me? I have a four-step strategy for learning new things:

  1. Focus on the new thing until I get bored,
  2. Do something else,
  3. Maybe coming back to said new thing when I’m bored with whatever other thing I was doing,
  4. Repeat

Because I’ve been kinda-sorta studying Spanish for quite a while, Mike is under the impression that I might like to talk about studying Spanish with him.

Which is how we get into conversations like these:

Me gusta comer cerebros de mono.

“You like to eat … what now?”

“Monkey brains. See, that’s different from saying me gustan los cerebros de mano, or: I like monkey brains. The verb gustar is conjugated for the plural monkey brains instead of the infinitive to eat.”

“In what context would the subject of monkey brains ever come up, and why would you ever need to talk about eating them?”

… You see this here, people? This is how stuff like Spanish gets ruined for me.

I guess at least next time we’re ordering a pizza in Spanish, he can be the one who sounds like he’s flirting with the waiter.

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