Progress in Spanish is slow


It wasn’t much of a joke, as far as jokes go.

I saw the man wearing two hats, one on top of the other. The second hat may have been for his wife. It was decorated with intricate drawings. He was walking with her, a third hat tied to the handle of a stroller, and the family was making its way through the artisan market, where hats and ceramics and glass and handwoven, hand-carved, handmade items of all types are sold.

The man had his hands full, guiding the stroller loaded with purchases and keeping an eye on his wife, who was darting in and out of the artists’ stalls and, as I passed him, noting his two hats, I gave him a serious look and said, “I believe you need another hat.”

The man touched his hand to his hat, remembered he was wearing two and burst into laughter.

It was a real laugh, a belly laugh. He suddenly realized he looked silly, and he thought it was funny that I was bringing this to his attention in such a serious voice. And I was ridiculously pleased because I’d made the joke in Spanish.

Language is so tricky.

For decades, I’ve been able to ask where the bathroom is located and how much something costs. I’ve steadily picked up vocabulary because so many cognates are shared between Spanish and English. But then I’ve gotten stuck. I have to plan sentences before I say them. I have to ask people to speak more slowly or to repeat themselves three times. I do better with cab drivers and hotel employees because they have made it their life’s work to understand the fractured sentences of tourists and can make a reasonable guess as to what I’ve said.

But I’ve never been able to make a spontaneous joke.

I reached the conclusion about 10 years ago that I was never going to be fluent, so there wasn’t much point in trying. I’d become a writer, and I realized in a new way how inadequate my Spanish was, how far I was from being able to say anything important or meaningful. And so I quit.

But coming back to San Miguel de Allende has changed my mind. Because at its core, language is not about putting together beautiful sentences or showing off my vocabulary and grammatical skills.

Language is about connecting with people.

I will never understand Spanish as clearly as I would like. I won’t get the subtle inferences, the implied meanings. I’ll always be a little naïve and clueless and have to have things spelled out for me. But, as I think about this, I realize I’m a little like this all the time — in any language.

What matters is that last night, I overheard two elderly Mexican tourists who could not find their way back to their hotel. The hotel was only a block and a half away. It was not an emergency. But I understood their confusion and said, “I know where that is. I am going there.”

They looked a little skeptical. This blond woman did not look like a local. But they slowly followed me (one had a cane) and, when we finally made it to their hotel, I was absurdly pleased.

My progress in Spanish is slow. I lose hope on a regular basis.

But yesterday, I helped two old women find their way. And the day before that, I made a joke. It wasn’t much of a joke, but somebody laughed and — at least for today — that is all the motivation I need.

Till next time,

Carrie Photos from the column and a link to YouTube videos can be found at

Carrie Classon Contributing columnist Classon Contributing columnist

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