Learning a new language is a lot of fun, and I experienced it firsthand while picking up bits and pieces of Tamil. However, I have never understood why many of my friends suddenly decided to learn Spanish one fine day. Surely it is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, and on an unrelated note, a large part of my doctoral dissertation examines the Hispanic population in the US. However, I never understood what was it about the language that attracted people to learn it.
I got my answer recently during my 5 day trip to Puerto Rico.
The first word I encountered was “Salida” (an exit), when the shuttle of the rental car company drove us from the airport to the rental car agency. Of course I had seen the word before, during my flights to California.
As we waited at the rental car agency, the second word I learned was “Banos” (a bathroom). I did not know what exactly it meant then, having read the sign outside a restroom. It could have meant women as well, or men perhaps. Debbie and I tried making a funny association to remember it- “Saira Bano banos” J.
Driving in Puerto Rico is not for the faint-hearted. You get used to it of course. First, all the signs are in Spanish. Second, people drive somewhat aggressively. Third, the bylanes are filled with potholes and are without lane demarcations, pedestrians just flag you down trying to cross busy streets, something you never get used to unless you have driven in India. When I parallel parked my car, half my car was hoisted up the pavement, just like every other car before and after my car was. I said a silent prayer as I prepped myself for five days of driving around the island. The next day, I was kicking ass, innocuously breaking a few driving rules, cruising through the potholes, and navigating my way with a confidence as if I have always driven here. It is amazing how fast your brain gets used to doing things. So the next words I learned were “Pare” (to stop) and “Parada” (bus stop).
The guy at the hostel gave me a few basic words to remember. “Calle” (a street) was enunciated as “ca-ye”. “Este” meant to go east. “Oeste” meant to go west. Most of my Spanish vocabulary was still confined to driving terminology. I came across a really cool term, cool because it seemed like a scientific term right out of a Physics textbook. “Velocidad Maxima” means speed limit. I was hooked to another word, whose meaning it took me a while to figure out. “Estacionamiento publico” means public parking. I tried saying that word again and again, but it was a tongue twister, which drew me to the word all the more. Why would someone use such a complicated word? If you thought parallel parking is hard, try saying the word “parking” in Spanish.
Of course I learned a few terms of greetings. “Ola” (hi), “Saludos” (greetings), “Gracias” (thank you, and the s is silent), “de nada” (welcome), “por favor” (please), “bienvenidos” (welcome), and so on. And then there were words associated with food, “papa” (a potato), mofongo, empanadas, and tres leches (a 3 layered milk cake). “Agua” is water, and “Jugo” is juice. I learned some colors too, for example, “Amarillo” is yellow and “verde” is green (I now wonder if Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado or Agua Verde Café in Seattle has anything to do with green).
By now, learning Spanish seemed a lot of fun, and I was picking up words fast. There was a “24 horas” pharmacy store, horas meaning hours, and when I tried asking the police if I could park my car where I did in Old San Juan and he told me “No Ingles”, I showed him eight of my fingers and said, “8 horas, car there, park?”. I don’t think he understood anything although he said “si si” (yes yes), but Debbie was clearly taken aback, wondering if horas meant the word it sounded familiar to J. I know the police didn’t understand me because later that day, I found out that I was parked the whole day in a lane meant only for officials to park. Thankfully I did not get a parking ticket.
Now this gets interesting. I thought that “mujeres” is women’s restroom and “caballeros” is men’s restroom, until someone told me that restroom has got nothing to do with it. It is similar to restroom signs that have either “women” or “men” written in front of it. Now how do I remember that? Debbie had an amazing idea. She asked me to remember that women dance mujras and men dance cabarets. There you go. By the way, women are also “damas” and men are “hombres”. So now, I was starting to learn synonyms too. And of course “amigo” is a friend.
By now, I was hooked to Spanish and wanted to learn as many words as I could. So I went to the local Walmart, pen and paper in hand. There, I wrote down the Spanish words for everything that fascinated me. I learned that “prohibido fumar” means smoking is prohibited. I learned that “zapatos” is slippers (something I heard the airport official say, probably asking us to remove our shoes during the security check). “Joyeria” is jewelry (learning languages is all about making associations. So Debbie thought Joyeria is a joyous diarrhea). “Camas” is a mattress (Debbie once again gave me a knowing look, associating the word “kaam” with a mattress). “Ropa Para” means clothes. “Hogar” is home. “Nina” is a little girl, “Nino” a little boy (remember el nina and la nino from the geography lessons in school?), “bebe” is a baby, and the more complicated “recien nacidos” is a newborn.
So with a vocabulary of nearly 40 words learned in 5 days, I left Puerto Rico with a heavy heart, wanting to learn Spanish. I loved the Spanish music channels I listened to during those long drives to the beaches and mountains. I don’t know what it all meant, but it sounded so very sexy. Every male voice in those songs seemed to me like a handsome young man was playing the guitar, speaking words of love to his beloved. People swear by French as “the” language of romance, but I have never really felt attracted to it. First, everything is nasal, and then, what you say is only half of what you write. I fell in love with one particular song they played again and again, and now I have no idea how to find it. The only words I remembered is “masima masima” (which makes no sense to me, it means mother’s sister in Bengali), and I did not have Shazam with me. Does anyone know what song this might be?
I don’t know where I can learn more Spanish. Sure, I can say 40 words, but I can’t weave them into a coherent, grammatically correct sentence. I saw some amazingly good reviews, and some amazingly bad reviews for Rosetta Stone. I friend of mine who similarly fell in love with Mandarin after visiting China told me that he took Mandarin classes at the local community college, made Chinese friends and listened to them talking, watched Chinese movies, and listened to Chinese songs. Maybe that would help? I don’t know. Anyone out there who learned Spanish recently?
My next dream is to visit Spain. And find a job in a predominantly Spanish speaking state or country, preferably Puerto Rico.