Help me por favor, más despacio

The language learner in a new place is full of doubts, insecurities, and fears – big breaths in through the mouth and out through the nose are essential. As is a big L sign hung around the neck to indicate that word carnage is on the way. Converse with caution y más despacio por favor.


“Do you want to go faster?” I remember the Holiday Bounce carney at the CNE* would yell to us 20 or so screaming kids, all holding on to our seats for dear life. Aqui, en la feria la pregunta is similar: ¿Te gusta ir rápido o despacio? Para los niños la respuesta es: ¡rápido! For me, it’s despacio por favor. For now, at least.

You see, I still talk like an 8 year old, and prefer my conversation slow, repeated, and light on Marx and Nietzsche (or Santayana and José Ortega y Gasset), although my ability does seem to improve with cerveza y vino tinto y sidra en Asturias.** On a recent trip to Madrid, Belén and I witnessed a conversation on the Metro*** between a mother and her young boy which was exactly my speed. The mother was telling him what they would be doing, and what each of the next stops would be, to which he would say, “¿Y después?” Over and over and over. Exactly what I needed. Simple, slow, repetitive. Aspergers Berlitz.

I was so into their simple rhythm that I wanted to follow them out and tag along, answering with the boy as his mother gave the next instruction: “Vamos al Prado.” ¿Y después?” Vamos al Thyssen.” “Y después?” “Vamos al Reina Sofía.” “¿Y después?” “Vamos al Rastro.” “¿Y después?” I could outlast him any day.

Of course, it’s tough for the language learner in any new place. I go back to the same stores again and again so I don’t have to explain how stupid I am again (they know from the first time). I order the same meals, the ones I understood before because it’s too big a gamble to try sesos de cordero. I pay with notes, unable to understand the quick rendering of el camarero o la camarera, and then pray that I understand how much change is right. My face is full of worry lines; my wallet is full of coins.

Signs help. While mingling in the streets with scores of tourists and locals alike, everybody’s checking everyone else out. Me, I’m looking at the signs for a clue, an aide, anything to get to level pegging. Anything to get me where I am going without too much pride lost. Of course, it’s okay to check out the goods, as long as I can learn along the way (las gafas o los abanicos).




As for las costumbres, well, that’s a whole other language learner’s can of worms. So far, organized queues are easier since I can’t speak well enough to assert myself when some dolt cuts in front of me. And I am sorry for honking at the jubilado who was just waiting his turn to park the other day. In any language, one wants to know what is ahead. I may not understand all the words, but I am starting to get the poetry of signs and signals of sympathetic looks and sonrisas.

Such is the life of a newbie extranjero (say that fast three times), which I know will get easier, although there is something edifying about jumping in at the deep end to drink a beer or a wine or a cider in a foreign land. To be sure, yo quiero beber rápido pero hablar despacio. Whether cerveza, vino tinto, o sidra. Tomorrow, I shall try harder, listen better, and think more. ¿Y después?

ASIDE Vivir/Beber: The pronunciation of these two verbs continues to stymie. Fortunately, it’s worth the humour my bad sense provides. I live in Gijón, I drink cider. Yo vivo in Gijón, yo bebo sidra. The writing is not hard, vivir is like vida (life) and beber seems to be like bebidas (drinks) or bebidos (drunk). The pronunciation is a matter of fine stress. Beebo and baybo. Indeed, eat, drink, and be merry whatever the pronunciation.
 * The CNE (Canadian National Exhibition) is an annual fair that runs for three weeks at the end of the summer in Toronto. The longest annual fair of its kind in North America, it has hundreds of rides and halls, and is a standard hangout for kids of all ages.
** Sidra is a way of life in Asturias. It’s like communion here, the spirit shared in the shared glass. I will need to learn much more about this costombre before reporting back. Check out Where is Asturias for lots of great info on sidra, arroz con leche and all things Asturian.
*** Shockingly, La Puerta del Sol, the main square and meeting place in Madrid has been renamed (rebranded the gurus will say) after a mobile phone company. All the Metro signs now call Sol vodafone sol. It seems there´s no more soul to Sol. For an account on the effect of rebranding in our world and the 24/7 selling machine, see the chilling Consumed by Benjamin Barber. The Winner-Take-All Society by Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook excellently shows how unchecked consumer competition is in fact a race to the bottom. I also cover the ad world with regards to the zero-sum game in Do The Math! On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking. No society should rebrand its core by commerce. Más despacio—the faster you consume the faster you reach the end.

About johnkwhi

I have worked as a writer, computational analyst, project manager, physicist, and lecturer during a 30-year career. I recently published the general trade book Do The Math! On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2012), aimed at improving general numeracy, and The House of Words (Tuttle House, 2013), a literary thriller starring New York Scrabble champ Suzy Q. I recently moved to Spain and started this Caracolas blog to record some of my experiences.
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