I have been trying, for as long as I can remember and with limited success, to learn Spanish.
My husband, Peter, says I am good, but that is because he does not speak Spanish, so if I say anything that is understood by anyone, he regards it as a minor miracle. I feel that I have been stuck at about the same level of Spanish for at least 20 years. I can ask where things are and communicate in emergencies and exchange the usual greetings, then I dry up. I’d like to change that.
Since we are now planning to spend more time in Mexico, I’ve been taking this whole learning Spanish thing more seriously. I’ve been using Duolingo, which is a free program online, and I seem to be making progress, albeit slowly.
Duolingo relies on repetition—a lot of it. It tries to replicate the way a child would learn a language, so instead of lessons to memorize, there is simply exercise after exercise that builds on one another. Just as a toddler repeats the same thing over and over again, Duolingo does its best to turn me into that toddler, repeating nonsensical phrases until they finally stick in my brain and become second nature. At least that’s the theory.
“I really like hot sandwiches,” I say in Spanish over and over again.
As I say this, it occurs to me that I have not actually eaten a hot sandwich in years. I’m trying to remember if I have ever had a hot sandwich. I try to imagine where in Mexico I might find a hot sandwich and have an opportunity to tell someone how much I like it. Then I realize that I’m not even sure that I do especially like hot sandwiches. And even if I did, who would care?
The next phrase is waiting for me. I move on.
“My dog never takes a shower.”
Well, I no longer have a dog, so this phrase appears to be of even less use. It is true, when I had a dog, he never took a shower. Was he supposed to, I wonder? Would someone ever ask me this, in Mexico or anywhere else? Under what circumstances would someone ask, “Say, how often does your dog shower?”
“Oh,” I’d confidently reply, “My dog never takes a shower!”
Again, I’m coming up with very few instances when this phrase would have much practical value.
When I get an answer correct in Duolingo, a little animated animal jumps for joy. While I would like to say that I find this ridiculous and unnecessary, I would be lying. Making that little owl do a somersault is deeply satisfying.
I don’t honestly know if this is the best way to learn Spanish or not. There are a lot of programs out there. But most of them do not involve animated animals celebrating every time I get an answer correct and I might need that kind of encouragement if I’m ever going to get any better. These little animals seem to know I’m not the brightest Spanish student they’ve ever had, but they are patient. If I can correctly tell them about my dirty dog or my love of hot sandwiches, they are over the moon.
When I finish a lesson, a horn sounds, as if this is a grand accomplishment. I know it’s not. The overexcited owl knows it’s not.
But learning just a little bit of Spanish every day feels as if I am accomplishing something, so, what the heck. Let’s celebrate with a hot sandwich.
Till next time,
– Carrie Classon is a freelance writer and author and lives in New Mexico. Her columns appear each week.