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Small Talk: A real tongue twister

My son used to come to me for help with his Spanish homework. He knew full well that he could get no math assistance, but yo hablo Español. Sort of.

Never mind that I chatted through three years in high school and several semesters in college. Somehow, I never got out of the present tense — and my vocabulary needs work. If anyone asks me to translate something, I am sharply reminded of my muchas shortcomings.

I love to speak it, but my mastery of Español is such a spotty thing. I once had a professor tell me I spoke like a native when I read out loud in class. It seems I am a silver-tongued devil who can never quite remember whether pato means a duck or my hair, or whether I had just told someone they were cute or a fool.

I managed to learn several bits of slang that really made me sound like I had the language down, but it’s all flash and no substance. I have sworn several times over the years I would  immerse myself in the language and really master it, but no one has offered me a six-month stay in Puerto Vallarta.

There have been plenty of times when I was very glad that I knew as much Spanish as I do. I can stumble along in what linguists scathingly call “Spanglish,” and have done so many times with patient, helpful Spanish speakers. I have managed to help tourists fill out customs cards, gotten students to bring back library books and told secrets to my husband in front of my children. But more often I am desperately frustrated when I can craft a third of what I want to say and then come up empty on the crucial phrase or tense needed.

There was, for instance, the time I flew down to Cabo San Lucas on a whim to meet my husband for the weekend. My words of wisdom here are, talk to your travel agent first. An unplanned jaunt to the tip of Baja left me there without the proper paperwork to get home. I stood in the middle of the Cabo airport, six months pregnant and terrified.

I had no idea how long I might be stuck there, but I began thinking up Spanish names for my unborn child. Not only did I not know enough Spanish to explain my problem convincingly, I remember even less when I am in panic mode.  (That sort of explains most of my test grades, too.)

What phrases do I have down cold? Well, there is “¿Como se dice en Espanol…?” which is probably my favorite. If I can’t remember how to say something, there’s a good chance the person I’m talking to can enlighten me. My other standby is “Habla mas despacio, por favor.” If I am to simultaneously translate, or even belatedly translate, it requires them to speak at the pace of a robot low on batteries.

I’ll keep at it, though, in my slow and occasional fashion. But the minute someone offers a “Learn Spanish the Luxurious Way” cruise to Madrid, I’m first in line.

Jean Gillette is a freelance writer struggling with future tenses. Contact her at [email protected].