I left for Mexico City on the last day of my Spanish class, a perfect segue between theoretical practice and putting it all into actual practice. My hope was to get a full immersion experience, use English as seldom as possible, and come back speaking Spanish leaps and bounds beyond where I started.
Problem is, I don’t know that much Spanish to begin with. I’ve learned two forms of the past tense but not the one that seems most important, the simple past. Likewise, I know the easy form of the future tense (ir + infinitive), but not the more sophisticated one. I am clueless when it comes to using verbs with se at the end, because I keep projecting the French rules for reflexive verbs onto them, and they just do not follow those rules. And my vocabulary is severely limited.
It’s not easy to immerse with such a small tool set. So, my level of success was varying. Sometimes, due to accents above all, I could not understand a single word a person was saying, and they could not understand me either. Many times, I thought I was cleverly and rather poetically working my way around the words I didn’t know, when in actuality my creative expression was only further confusing things. Often, I swapped similar-sounding words and wreaked havoc on my intended meaning, as when I told a man that my job was to make girlfriends – novias – instead of the news – noticias. (Akin to when I kept referring to hair – cheveux – as horses – chevaux – in France.)
I had better luck once I accepted the fact that I had to think my words through more carefully before spitting them out, even though I was already talking at a snail’s pace. After a slooooow conversation with two local men towards the end of my trip, one commented to another, “Ella habla muy despacio pero cada palabra es perfecto.” I was thrilled at the backhanded-compliment – despite their obvious belief that I was too slow to understand what they were saying about me.
And eleven days of semi-immersion is all it takes, apparently. By the end of my trip, when I was in a taxi returning to the hotel in Mexico City after my Elsewhere adventure, I became a veritable charlatan. (Not a pretender, as in the English definition, but rather a chatterbox, as in the Spanish. Intriguing, no, that there is an etymological connection between lying and over-talking?) I was making crazy confident conversation. The words were flowing. I understood the cabbie, he understood me. It was like I had hit my Spanish flow.
The same thing happened in France, though on a much higher level. In Mexico, I was ecstatic to find I could form complete sentences with the correct tense and conjugation. In France, I was astounded when I could carry on the same conversations I would have had in English. But in both cases, I kept hitting a wall, hitting a wall, hitting a wall, and then went to bed one night and woke up the next day speaking the language.
In short: immersion makes miracles happen.