Friday 15 July 2011

¡Yo aprendo Español!

I'm just about to start the final few days of my 4 week intensive Spanish language learning course in Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala - 5 hours of one-on-one tuition every weekday, homework every evening and weekend, and food and board provided by a local, non-English speaking family. It's been quite an experience - incredibly rewarding and frustrating in equal measure - and by the end I will have completed 100 hours of private Spanish lessons.
Xela Parque Central

So, do I speak Spanish....? That question's not as simple to answer as it may seem. There are different levels of 'knowing' a language and a big step up from understanding everything to actually being able to speak it. Being the forever pessimist, I'd probably still not claim to be able to ´speak Spanish', but my level of comprehension and speaking ability has definitely improved a huge amount from where I was a month ago.

It can sometimes seem like the more I learn, the more complicated things get: there are so many rules (and just as many 'exceptions' to the rules), verbs (regular, irregular, reflexive, pronominal, reciprocal) and tenses (present, past perfect and imperfect, projections of the future, the actual future and others that I haven't even touched on yet) and each verb ending conjunction changes depending on the subject you are referring to and the tense you are speaking in. It's a lot to take in and more than enough to make your head spin at times. I sometimes look back with a hint of fondness to my language ignorance of last month, when I would happily spout nonsense in the wrong tense, with the wrong conjunction and using the wrong sentence structure - I was speaking complete nonsense but I was blissfully unaware - now I know when I'm getting it wrong, but I don't always remember how to get it right!

Xela mountain overspill

I realise this opening is not a particularly encouraging and positive critique of my new language abilities, so I'm now going to squeeze on my ill-fitting optimistic hat. There's no doubt that my knowledge of all aspects of the Spanish language has come on leaps and bounds in the last three weeks (in reality, a very short period of time). Looking back to the beginning of last month and comparing to now; my level of comprehension and speaking ability has improved beyond what I could have hoped for. Back then there is no way I would have been able to communicate in the manner I do now - approaching random locals in the street to begin an exchange in Spanish, chatting to strangers on the bus, asking for directions when I inevitably get lost on a solo day trip. There are some days when it's only when I get to bed that I realise I haven't spoken a word of English all day. I only need a couple of days like this and it can feel strange to encounter and converse with another English-speaking person. This is what is meant by real 'language immersion'!

My school
My level of immersion has been helped somewhat by the location of my school and homestay; about 2km north of Xela city centre - well away from the multitude of bars and restaurant that, in the evening, become home to vast numbers of Spanish students, rebelliously whispering in English. My school - 'La Democracia' - is on a quiet 'calle' in zone three and my house is directly opposite, on the other side of the street. I have lessons every weekday afternoon from 2-7pm and, although I do venture into town most mornings, I'm often too lazy after class (especially if it's raining - like most evenings!) and instead just head back to my host family. This means that pretty much every day is exclusively Spanish-speaking (after 2pm at least).

Yessica - mi maestra!
The school principal is the phenomenal Flory - I don't think I've ever seen anyone work so hard but still have time to speak to everyone (in Spanish, of course) - and my 'Maestra' for the duration has been the lovely, miniature Yessica. 100 hours in a room with just me for company - she has had to endure a lot (mostly my pathetic attempts at joking in Spanish, but also the more specific stuff I do to amuse myself; like trying to find a way to end every Spanish story I tell with the phrase: "Yo comi un helado y fui a la cama"). Remarkably, not only has she risen above all my juvenile antics, but she's also somehow managed to keep us on track with the lesson plan and forced me to improve everyday. It's not often you spend 100 hours in 4 weeks with just one person (who's not your spouse) and it's even crazier to think we haven't spoken one word of English to eachother. Somehow it's worked, and not only am I indebted to her with regards to my Spanish, but she's become a good friend too.

Mi casa (top left)
I have been extremely lucky with my surrogate family too: a young couple called Magaly and Raul and their two kids - 6 year old Annelle, and the whirlwind of mischief that is 1 year old Santiago. Raul works long hours as a chef at a local restaurant, so I only really get to see him at mealtimes (when he goes out of his way to be sociable and friendly - I don't think I've ever seen him without a grin on his face). Despite only being a few years older than me, Magaly has well and truly become my temporary mother these last few weeks (read 'temporary', real mother!) - doing my washing, cleaning my room and cooking me three meals a day (75% of these meals may be refried beans, eggs and tortillas, but I'm still hugely grateful, and it's kept me very regular....). Annelle has been learning English at school for the last couple of months and even at this very basic level, she speaks more English than anyone else in the family. We often help eachother with homework - it was a little depressing at first to realise we were both at a similar level with our respective language learning, but I can safely say I'd wipe the floor with her now! (although I'm generally much more humble about it than that sentence suggests...)

Santiago - bien vestido!
Lastly, but definitely not leastly, Santiago. Ah... Santiago. The phrase 'mischief-maker' may have been created just for him. At 18 months old, he most definitely speaks less Spanish than me (which can be reassuring at times) and spends his days toddling around the house; grabbing, pulling and opening anything that's grabbable, pullable or openable. Some very specific Spanish phrases have been ingrained in my memory as a result, namely: "¡Santiago, No!", "¡No toca, Santiago!", and "¡No, Santiago, es muy caliente!". If I've really had enough of speaking Spanish for the day, I can spend some time playing with Santiago - Magaly appreciates the break in having to constantly watch him and I can turn my brain off, safe in the knowledge that he's not going to want to test my understanding of reflexive verbs in the third person.

Mi cuarto
It's been quite strange living this lifestyle - I sometimes forget that I'm actually travelling. It doesn't always seem like it when I have to study everyday, eat family meals around the kitchen table, and spend every night in my own bedroom. A drastic shift from the first month of my trip and the sort of travelling I'm used to - constantly on the move from city to city, meeting new people almost everyday and bedding down in communal backpacker hostels every night. There are benefits to how I'm living now - having my own space makes a nice change, for example, and it's been good to really get to know the city of Xela - but I am looking forward to getting on with the proper travelling again. It can get lonely at times here and some days can feel lacking in fun. But, when I look at the big picture, I realise that putting in the hours learning Spanish here is going to enrich the remainder of my trip no end. I'm also making the most of my spare time - jumping on a chicken bus or hiring a bicycle and getting out of the city whenever I can - but more on that later.

View from my room
Before I started my course here, I had only really been learning Spanish phrases whenever I needed them and picking up enough random words to get by. But, in order to really understand the language and become 'fluent' in the long term, it's necessary to know the underlying rules and learn to construct your own phrases rather than just repeating them from a book. One of the skills I have learnt most recently is being able to speak in the past tense. It may sound simple, but there's actually quite a lot to it! Up until recently I could only really speak in the present tense (and a bit in the future). Any conversations about the past would usually require me to just say at some point that I was talking about the past, and then continue to speak in the present - leaving the other person to switch my statements to the past in their own head, and probably feeling a bit like they're speaking to someone who recently suffered a brain injury. In essence, I was always living in the moment (in Spanish, anyway), which may sound nice - poetic, Buddhist even - but it can seriously limit your small talk. Literally everything that's ever happened did so in the past, and it's nice to be finally able to talk about it.

Los libros para aprender
To give you a quick idea of why it can be so hard to learn to speak in different tenses, I'll use the example of the verb 'to be' - one of the most useful and frequently required verbs in general conversation. Which is why it's nice to learn that not only are there two different forms of the verb in the infinitive (depending on exactly what you want to say) but they are both irregular (meaning that the various conjunctions of the verb don't follow the usual 'rules'). The first of the two 'to be' verbs is 'Estar' - used most frequently to explain temporary states of objects and people. In the present tense there are always five main different endings to each verb; depending on whether you're talking about yourself, about someone else informally, about someone else (or an object) informally, about yourself as part of a group, or about a group of other people. In these different situations, the verb 'Estar' becomes: Estoy, Estas, Esta, Estamos and Estan, respectively. But, bare in mind there are two different verbs for 'to be', the second being 'Ser' in the infinitive (used to describe more permanent characteristics) which changes to Soy, Eres, Es, Somos and Son in the above described situations.

Once you've mastered that, things go a bit more mental for the past tense - where, helpfully, both verbs are irregular again. 'Estar' becomes Estuve, Estuviste, Estuvo, Estuvimos and Estuvieron. For some reason 'Ser' becomes Fui, Fuiste, Fue, Fuimos and Fueron - which are exactly the same words used for the conjunctions of the verb 'to go' in the past tense. Oh, and did I mention that this is only one form of the past tense - the preterito tense: used to talk about things that only happened once, or at an exact time. If you want to talk more vaguely about something that happened frequently in the past, you need to use the imperfect forms of the two verbs - Estaba, Estabas, Estaba, Estabamos, Estaban (for 'Estar') and Era, Eras, Era, Eramos, Eran (for 'Ser').
My desk and window

Don't forget, this is just one verb (two variants) in the present and past tense. There are still at least two other sets of verb endings for the future tense and, of course, countless other verbs - with different endings for the different situations. This is what I mean by ignorance is bliss - it's great that I now know all this, but it's not always easy to work things out in my head quickly enough to have a proper conversation.

Another aspect of the language that can be difficult to get your head around, especially for a native English speaker, is the concept of masculine and feminine. This is alien to the British language, but a cornerstone of most other European dialects. Depending on the 'sex' of a word, you have to change the 'article' that goes before it (El or La, Un or Una), which changes again in the plural (Los or Las, Unos or Unas). Whether a subject is masculine of feminine can also affect other words in the sentence - adjectives, for example, which end in 'o' for masculine and 'a' for feminine. The most confusing thing is that there doesn't seem to be any logic behind whether a word is masculine or feminine - the day, for example, is masculine (El dia) but the night (La noche) is feminine - and there are always exceptions to the rule - the word Agua (water) is masculine in it's singular form (El agua) but feminine in the plural (Las aguas). Bonkers!

You also have to be careful how you use particular words. The word for 'hot' is 'caliente', however, if you say "Estoy caliente" that basically means you're horny. Instead you have to say "Tengo mucho calor", which literally translates as "I have much heat" (I think that actually sounds a lot dodgier, but oh well). Also, you use the verb 'Gustar' to say you like things and objects, but not people - because that means you like them in a 'strong' way. Instead there is the verb 'Caer bien' just for use in saying you like 'people'.

I realise that the above language lesson will have been incredibly boring for some of you - those who have no interest in Spanish and those who already know the language to a much higher level than myself - but this is just my attempt at a low-level explanation of some of the subtler nuances of the 'idioma'. I hope this gives a little insight into how I'm currently spending my days - a mixture of sitting dumbfounded with my head in my hands, but with increasingly regular moments of insight and realisation. It's the latter that really make it all worthwhile, and there's no better feeling than successfully partaking in any sort of Spanish conversation, with both parties fully understanding what is being said. I still have one more week of lessons left and, after that, at least another 7 months of opportunities to converse and learn more during my travels in Latin America. I'm getting there, slowly but surely, 'poco a poco'. As long as I keep it up, things can only get better and I've already improved astronomically from where I was at the start of this trip. Fluency is still a long way off, and I won't be applying for any translation jobs just yet, but every day I'm getting closer to feeling like I'll soon be able to say "¡Si, hablo Español muy bien!"

The focus of this blog has been purely on my Spanish learning exploits during my time in Guatemala so far and I haven't yet mentioned any other adventures during my first three weeks here - of which there have been many: volcanoes have been climbed, traditional villages visited and various other weird and wonderful experiences experienced. There's more than enough for a whole other blog - so I hope to publish another in the next week or so. Watch this space! :)

(more photos below - all photos can be clicked to enlarge!)

El centro de Xela

Xela Iglesia

A 'chicken bus' in full flow

Typical Xela shot

Another 'chicken bus' (repurposed American school buses)

My neighbourhood in Xela

Magaly, Raul & Annelle

Annelle & Santiago

Me & Santiago

My street in Xela - school on the left, house on the right

Me & Yessica

Me & Yessica - probably just after I've said something inappropriate

Flory & Yessica

Santiago enjoying his Frijoles (with "Kickey" for company)


  1. Read this again after coming home and being able to see it properly! Lovely pics, and a very good explanation on the joys of trying to learn spanish lol.

    Speak soon, lots of love Mum xxxx

  2. Beautifully written James and very proud of your perseverance with the learning! Where are you off to next? Excited to get going again?


  3. James, gracias por la foto con el chicken bus en acción! Quería una con el conductor encima del bus, pero nunca la tomé cuando estaba en Xela.

    Espero que tengas buenos viajes!

    Nikki (de Chicago)