How I Learned Spanish

2 de Junio

Country/Day: Guatemala/19

Bikes Fixed: 25ish

Bicimaquinas Built: 0.5

Bikes/Day Averagish: 1.31

…in ten easy steps!

I haven’t learned Spanish yet, of course, so there won’t be ten steps, but I thought I might at least outline a few of them for you.

(1) Develop a fascination with France and french culture. Because of this, take French – about seven years should do. In your last your develop a temporary fear of foreign travel and turn down the opportunity to actually go to France. Once you reach college, decide you’re not going to major in French and that you know enough to get by if you decide to try that whole “travel abroad” thing again. Test out of the foreign language requirement.


(2) Don’t speak French again with any seriousness until you finally go to France – 2018 sounds good (since your future employer allows a 5 week sabbatical  every fifth year, and pays airfare for countries you haven’t been to).


(3) During your time in college, imagine that Spanish might, at some point in your life, be important Despite being less interesting than French, it is much more widely spoken, and much more proximal to your home (excluding Canada… sorry bro). Also, have lots of AP credit related to your degree, so you have lots of freedom to take whatever classes you want. Take a year of Spanish.

Due to (1) you find this year to be not terribly difficult. While about 50% of the vocabulary is significantly different in Spanish than in French, most of it is similar (and some is exactly the same). Sentence formation is almost exactly the same. What you really struggle with is pronunciation and vocabulary – your brain has been tricked into thinking all the words are the French ones, so when you don’t know a word you brazenly use the French one. Oops – half the time anyways.


(4) Don’t speak Spanish again seriously until just before you go to Guatemala, almost exactly a year after your last Spanish class. You thought maybe your first Spanish-speaking experiences would be in Argentina, given your desire to learn an authentic tango… but it’s just as well.


(5) Buy a Spanish dictionary and start looking up useful words and phrases.


(6) Go to Guatemala and speak Spanish (alternatively, don’t speak Spanish, and die). Unlike India, very few people here know English (I count two so far – Carlos knows some vocabulary, and there’s a clerk who asks, “How are you today?” if he’s outside when I walk by). Talk to your employer in Spanish. Order food in Spanish. Pay for things in Spanish. Ask where things are in Spanish. Ask how to get drinking water…. in Spanish. If you don’t know the words, play charades, or just smile and nod and hope it doesn’t cost very much (or upset your stomach too much).

Become flabbergasted because for the most part people speak too fast and there’s way too much vocab for you to have learned in the few days you’ve actually been speaking Spanish. For instance, in India there were just rupees, so you assume in Guatemala there are just quetzals, when in fact each quetzal is broken up into 100 centavos.

Be extra confused because of the varied ways in which people pronounce monetary amounts. You didn’t get that far in your year of Spanish but you’re sure it would have been perfect Spanish every time: Costa dos quetzals, senior – This costs two quetzals, sir. In fact, people throw numbers out and around and upside down just like in English: Dos cincuenta – two-fifty, which could be Q250 or Q2.50, but you don’t understand the number cincuenta yet so you’re wondering how much that is.

Ask a kind lady at the market, “Cuanta cincuentas en uno quetzal?” – how many fifties are in one quetzal? Get a strange look in response.


(7) Speak Spanish more than is necessary. Meet people. Make friends, even if it’s just a store clerk who wants to learn more about the US (namely, they want you to invite them over because an invitation is the only way they can get a visa. Surprise them by mentioning that things are actually more expensive in the US than in Guatemala). Use your dictionary like crazy, and carry it with you wherever you go – the one time you forget it is the one time you need it most. Like that time you had to buy toilet paper. Have fun miming that one.

Your friends will pronounce numbers slowly, because it’s the one time they remember you’re not fluent. Kindly remind them you’ve got numbers down pat. Then they will take off on another topic at a million miles an hour.


(8) Become frustrated that your dictionary doesn’t have every word you want, including some important ones like “spatula.” How are you supposed to buy a spatula if you don’t know how to ask for it? (Note: If you can see the spatula, you’ve already figured out how to ask for “this here” in steps 5 and 6). Oh, and “ketchup –” you hate it, but of course it’s on every burger everywhere. You like tomatoes, though, so you can’t say “no tomatoes.” You try “no condiments,” and think you’re set when the response is a smile and a nod, but to no avail – your burger is just the same as before. Decide to go back to the “ask your employer” part of (6) as you do when you need help a dictionary can’t provide.


(9, 10)…I’ll tell you when I’m fluent. I assume they have something to do with “keep trying” (don’t get the idea that (8) has put me off at all, it was just worth mentioning).


– – –


So, I’m doing alright. I don’t think I’m at a loss for anything – sometimes it feels like I can communicate pretty effectively. For instance, I’ve got almost everything I need now (being the first volunteer since the split with Maya Pedal, and thus the first in new quarters, I’ve had to buy kitchen towels and a mirror, among other thigns). At market today I had a semi-unsuccessful hunt for a frying pan (a word my dictionary actually has) – “semi” unsuccessful because I did understand what was going on, so felt pretty good about my Spanish, and did eventually find a store and get them to order one in for me.

That being said, I don’t want you to imagine that the conversations on my blog at are all fluent. There are some sentences I have down pat, but most are full of “uh”-ing, starting at the sky while I remember a word or a conjugation, staring at the floor while I make sure it’s not French, flipping through my dictionary, and “yes!”-ing when someone guesses at my charade… quickly followed by “no…”-ing when I see, in fact, they’ve guessed wrong.

I am proud to say I catch myself thinking in Spanish from time to time, which I think is a big deal. There would probably be more of it were it not for the complete works of Sherlock Holmes which I find myself nosing into every day (and next will be either Neil DeGrass Tyson or Herbert George Wells). All the same, these thoughts are pretty elementary, as my vocabulary is still pretty small. With help from my trusty Merriam-Webster, dare I say I’ve at least doubled it since my arrival, though that may not be saying much.

Also, some things in Spanish are remarkably easy. For instance, the name of almost any store usually ends in some form of “rie” or “ria,” and the root is usually whatever they sell or make. Bakeries, for instance – the word for “bread” being pan, are panaderias. Barber shops (“hair” is pelo) are peluquerias, though admittedly a bit confusing as the word for “movie” is pelicula. Hardware stores are ferreterias, the word for “iron” being ferreo (no doubt referring to the early hardware stores selling mostly iron tools and wares). I was even able to guess the word for “glass” upon passing a vidrieria – a window shop. And so on. Quite conveniently, almost all the shops are labeled in this way. Even if it has a company name, first it says what kind of shop it is (Pasteleria Lorenita, for instance, is a cake shop called “Lorenita”).

Aside from shop names, something else that makes Spanish easy is what I’m going to call “theme words.” In English, you cook food in a kitchen and eat it in a dining room. Honestly, it’s all very confusing and I can’t blame anyone for taking their time in learning that hubbub of verbosity – the words “cook,” “food,” “kitchen,” “eat,” and “dining” all have absolutely nothing to do with each other. In Spanish, on the other hand, you cocina comida in a concina and le come in a cuarto de cena. Really all you have to do it remember that anything food related starts with the letter “c” and they all come to mind right away. In English, you comb your hair – now how can anyone ever be expected to remember that one? In Spanish, peinas tu pelu. Somebody had their cap on straight for at least one language.

There are, of course, some difficult and nonsensical words around, but I think being from arguably the most pompous country in the world (one of only three still using the US system of measurement, just to get that argument started) and being fluent in one of the most confusing languages in the world I really have no place to comment.


Instead, I think some comida is in order. Hasta luego.

4 thoughts on “How I Learned Spanish

  1. Jenna says:

    😀 This one was great! I can’t wait to hear 9 and 10… and to hear you speak at least conversational Spanish when you get back!

    • Kyle says:

      I am glad you liked it. : o) And thanks for the comment! Yes, while I have reservations about my Spanish skills, I sometimes surprise myself. Just today I had a conversation with Antonio (one of Carlos Sr.’s sons) about world travel and future job things.

  2. Marilyn says:

    Are you reading Sherlock Holmes in English or Spanish? I assume English, but I’m curious. Did you intentionally say “pretty elementary”? Oh, my dear Watson! Many meanings there. Great blog post. I imagine that other than the speed at which Spanish is spoken, you will be fairly fluent when you return home. What a great adventure!

    • Kyle says:

      English. Funny thing though, I bought the book in India… and it’s got a US price tag on it. : o)

      Yes, I did say that intentionally. : o) I am glad you appreciated it.

      Glad you like the post. Thanks for the comment!

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