My first Spanish classes. Arran the teacher, as student.

Monday 13th.

I attend my first Spanish classes, at a local school I find on the Internet- Mundo Español.  

For me,  there is a sense of backstory here,  of unfinished business.

Since the Barcelona of my youth, it’s been a source of shame and regret that, while my vocabulary (picked up by osmosis and driven by the imperatives of shopping, eating and navigating around a city)  is vaguely intermediate, and my accent half-decent, my Spanish grammar is all but non-existant.

This can not continue.   Oh no.

I am the mirror-opposite of the clever young Japanese and South Koreans who arrived at our school in Dublin, drilled to within an inch of their lives in every possible verb ending.  They sit in my class, with their tiny, exquisitely delicate handwritting, their perfect spelling and flawless grammar.

Yet most can only speak, shy, reluctant and halting, in heavily-accented, poorly-pronounced English.

I, by contrast, gabble away in Spanish (or used to) blithely abusing every rule of grammar, happily bastardising words,  and itemising my actions of yesterday, in the present tense.

Really, it will not do.

The shame of having to admit I lived in Spain for three and a half years               – “What?  – three and a half years!?”  –   and never really learned the language, has just become too much to bear.

So many excuses,  attempts at self-justification.  Mutterings (through grated teeth)  about how one was trying to be an artist or painter; about one’s work being through English and/or living in my old ex-patriot bubble.

In fact,  there were, and there remain, certain benefits, certain very real consolations, to living or staying somewhere where you can not speak the langauge.

Ignorance is indeed a kind of bliss.

It is a filter against the white noise of modern existance, the commericials that profilerate on every busstop and metro hoarding, every magazine and newspaper page,  and every other surface in sight; the noise of advertisments and chat shows, the radio jingles and non-stop news.    It concentrates life on the pesonal and the particular, rather than the general, the everyday, the banal.

I am pretty sure my reasons for never trying to learn Spanish were not down to simple idleness (or at least not entirely).

My ignorance protected me,  made everything exotic, yet gave me a certain peace, a peace I craved and needed badly then.

I heard this idea, of peace and protection, expressed best by an American poet I heard once reading outside Shakespeare and Company, on the banks of the Seine.  The title for her poem was A case for not speaking French in Paris.

It was a very good poem and made the case well.

Nonetheless, there are, clearly, far greater benefits in speaking a langauge: the possibilty of work, of friendship, of intellectual exchange and engagement,  accesss to information, ideas, to literature and cartoons, to thought and debate of every kind.

Already here I have made a small circle of acquaintanceship, but nearly all are ex-patriots and a few bi-lingual Argentines.

What must I be missing?

It’s time to find out.


Monday 13th.  My first day at school. 

by Arran Henderson-  (aged 8 and 1/2) 

Contrasts are always informative.  At the school where I work in Dublin we give every student a level test, which ascends in difficulty and lasts about half an hour.  Then we spend a further 8-12 minutes giving each student an individual speaking  interview, (an oral test) before we combine the two results then place each student into the right level of class.

My first morning at Mundo Español I have a 4-minute chat with the director.  I am then then dropped, immediately and uncerimoniously,  straight into Elementario.

Taking my seat in class, I burn with humiliation and resentment.

But I have very little time to burn with humiliation and resentment, because before 5 minutes have elapsed such feelings have been replaced with concern.

I am already struggling, badly, with two new tenses:  the Pretorios Indefinido and Imperfecto.

-For heaven sake, I mutter to myself, why don’t they teach us one tense at a time?

 Okay be calm.  I force myself to focus.

The Pretorio Indefinido seems to be, more or less, our Past Simple.  Phew.

But God only knows what the Pretorio Imperfecto is.

For a moment, I dare to think or hope that this Imperfecto might be- or be very like- our Present Perfect.

But, No, it isn’t,  because that is formed ( a bit like our P. Perfect) with an auxilary verb- Habar.   (In fact I think this tense is even called the Pretorio Perfecto.   But don’t quote me.)

Blast and f**k it, I’m lost again,  what did the teacher just say?

He is speaking much too fast, and in a broad Porteño accent, in Rio Plato Spanish dialect in fact. Rio Plato Spanish has its funny shhh…. sound, in place of proper Spanish ll-  “y”-sound.

Damm him, I can’t understand a word.    

Okay focus..

wait, Hang on, the Imperfecto seems to be for background, yes, for contexts,and for on-going situations.

In English we use the past continuous for this, (contrasting it with the Past Simple) –  I was walking down the road (when I saw John).

But although Spanish uses the Imperfecto like that, the Imperfecto is still definitely not the past continuous, because (and as a teacher of English grammar this is somewhat weird for me) because, they have a Past Continuous too!                            (what on earth do they need both tenses for ?)

In any case, it becomes clear, whatever the Imperfecto is, we definitely don’t have an equivilent or matching tense.   This is not just lingusitically difficult, it is conceptually tough as well.   Great.     The Spanish have a tense we just don’t have!  They have just invented one all of their own.   (How dare they? !) 

 To make everything much, much worse, Spanish verbs can and do end in three different ways:  –ar; -ir or –er.                                                                                                        Eg: Sacar/Salir/Comer, (to take out/go out/to eat)  

 -ar/-er/-ir.  Hmmm…  My concern is now displaced by a surge of rising panic.

Because not only do verbs obviously conjugate differently in different tenses such as the P. Indefinido or the P. Imperfecto,  But each type of verb ending (-ar; -ir or –er)  also conjucates in a different way.

I just feel overwhelmed now, overloaded, drowning in excess information.

Please God my own students never feel this way.  Note to myself:- Must speak, and teach, slower.  And with inifinite patience.

But wait!   There’s more!    Even if by some miracle you managed to learn the conjugations for all three possible verb endings across all these weird tenses, you still wouldn’t be able to hold a conversation in Spanish.

No, you would need all the irregular verbs as well.   And since in Spanish, like English, the irregular verbs are often the most common and important verbs- such as Ser (to be) or Ir (to go) – you just can’t get away with ducking them. They are vital.

But irregular verbs conjugate in all sorts of different ways.   Sadistically random ways- it seems to me- wilfully odd and bizarre.

Tener for example, meaning “to have” is obviously entirely indispensable, but horrifically irregular.

In the P. Indefinido “I had a chicken” is… “Tueve un pollo” but in P. Imperfecto it is..Tenia un pollo.”

The first “Tueve is having a chicken as a finished and completed action, in the past of course.   The second seems to mean having a chicken in an ongoing sort of way (and yet also in the past) but more by way of providing background context for some other, more important verb, soon to arrive.

By the way, in Madrid, and in Chile or Mexico City, the double-L in that chicken-  “pollowould be pronounced “po-Yo”.   But in Buenos Aires and Montevideo it is pronounced “po-sho”.

The same goes for all the other double-L words, like calle; ell; ellos – (street; she/her; they/them).   The Museum of Bella Artes here is the Museum of “Be-shas Artes”

(This Rio Plato dialect causes me no end of sad, lost-looking, head-shaking  confusion during my stay.  In conversation I constantly feel a yard off the pace.

The teacher casually scribbles a few more irregular verbs on the board.  Some I recognise.

For others I recognise the stem,  But-alarmingly- not the conjugation.

Tomar is a good example, ubiquitous in Spanish; it means “to have” in the sense of “to consume”.   “Tomar una pollo”  means “to eat a chicken”.  So far, so good.  But unfortunately,   I have absolutely no idea what Tense, or what part of the conjugation “Tomé” is.     In other words, I know somebody ate or has eaten or perhaps will eat… (is /was eating?)  a chicken but I don’t have a clue who (I eat? /you?/she or they ate? a chicken)  Nor do I know when.    Eat? ate? was eating? or has eaten a chicken?  – I just don’t have a notion.  This is a nightmare.

It gets worse.  Much worse.  Because a few other irregular verbs I simply don’t recognise at all.   How is this possible?

-“What,  three and a half years in Spain; and still you don’t… !?” 

Some of the verbs appear to be in Gujarati, or in Sanskrit.

Oh my God, I’m drowning. 

 After four hours of this saturation bombing with new information and/or long-forgotten information,  I have learnt, or been reminded that the Spanish have two completely different words which both mean ‘to be”,  and about six different verbs meaning “to take” and six others meaning “to go”

On the other hand, they have only one verb, Hacer, which means both “to do”  and “to make”.

Why, for the love of God?

After the four hours elapse,  I return home, exhausted,  and lie drained on the bed.

I have a splitting headache.

I fight the urge to sob into my pillow.

2 thoughts on “My first Spanish classes. Arran the teacher, as student.

  1. Whatever you do do not say voy a coger un collectivo …while in Spain one can coger un tren etc en la Pampa no se coge nada menos gente! X disfuta A! X


  2. Yes, when living in Germany I tried to learn German in a proper class (rather than as washer-upper shooting the breeze with co-workers) and only lasted two classes. Much better to speak appallingly but fluently, and to be illiterate than to try to put in that tedious slog. Nice work,


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