Yo Hablo Espanol…Sort of

Here in Puerto Rico, as in the Dominican Republic, we hear a lot of Spanish. Muy rápido Spanish, I might add. To my ears, it’s a language that seems to lend itself to speaking at breakneck pace. I catch the first few syllables, then it’s like a rock slide coming at me, an avalanche of words and phrases, replete with double ll’s (pronounced as “y”), perilously rolled r’s (as in burrrro), and little need for personal pronouns (I, you, he, she) because they’re already indicated by the verb form, which I didn’t catch in the first place.

I studied Spanish and French in high school and more French in college and can read them fairly well. Words on paper give you time to pause, study and reread them until they make sense. Not so when you’re trying to berth your boat in a tight slip at the marina and the dockhands are frantically yelling at you and each other with expressions of imminent disaster animating their faces.

So it would behoove me to become more fluent, and the only way to do that is practice. Here I take my cue from Carlos and Rosa, an Ecuadorian couple I knew years ago in Newport. Rosa was shy and hesitant to speak English for fear of making mistakes. But Carlos insisted. “I tell my wife, no!” he told me. “We will speak English. I don’t care if it is bad English. We will speak it.”

I admired their persistence; now it’s my turn to follow the example they set. Never mind if I mangle the verb tenses or the pronunciation. Never mind how many blunders I make. Never mind if those bearing the brunt of my efforts are privately thinking, Esta mujer is muy estúpida. Like it or not, they have been momentarily drafted as teachers in my Spanish 101 class.

In fact, as long as I’m not holding up the line in the supermercado, most speakers of Spanish are gracious and helpful with my attempts. Sometimes, when a word or phrase won’t come, I unthinkingly slip from Spanish into French. The quizzical look on their faces alerts me I’ve made the switch, and with a little mental reset I get back on track. Since many of those to whom I’m speaking broken Spanish speak excellent English themselves, I always end by thanking them for their paciencia. And yes, I do have a translation app on my phone, but what fun is that? I don’t want to talk to or through a machine. I want to be brilliantly fluent.

One way I used to practice Spanish before we moved onto Corroboree was by listening to Univision, the Spanish-language TV station. Weather reports, infomercials, talk shows. The best, however, were the telenovelas—soap operas. Whereas medical and legal dramas are strewn with complex issues and technical vocabulary, the soaps feature everyday joys and traumas, expressed in simple language and emphatically acted to boot. Here are some show-stopping exclamations I picked up:

Alguien pone drogas en mi bebida! (Someone put drugs in my drink!)

Estoy embarazada y no se quien es el padre! (I’m pregnant and I don’t know who the father is!)

Como pueden poner Jose-Luis en el cárcel? Es inocente! (How can they put Jose-Luis in prison? He’s innocent!)

Hijo, no puedes casarse con Maria porque…(dramatic pause)…es tu media hermana! (Son, you can’t marry Maria because…(dramatic pause)…she is your half-sister!)

I’m still waiting for a chance to use any of the above in actual conversation, but there’s time yet.

Also, there is one Spanish language error I know enough not to make. Years ago on Duprass, we met a lovely cruising couple, Lynn and Nancy Bayless, in Gibraltar. They owned the Hacienda Nicoyana, a haven for cruisers in Costa Rica, and Nancy told us of the first time she tried to buy eggs at a Costa Rican market.

“Tiene huevos? (Do you have eggs?)” Nancy asked the vendor, only to have the man throw up his hands and recoil in horror. “Tiene huevos?” Nancy repeated, unsure what she had said wrong but willing to try again. The poor man went red in the face. It turns out that huevos is slang for “balls,” so Nancy was actually inquiring whether the señor was fully equipped. The correct phrasing, she later learned, is “Hay huevos? (Are there eggs?)”

Should you find yourself in conversation with someone struggling to speak English, think of me massacring Spanish here in Puerto Rico and take the time to help them if you can. Speak slowly and clearly, repeat words and employ gestures as necessary, and don’t use slang. Above all, smile. However brief the encounter, you will have fulfilled the honorable role of teacher. You may may even have saved them from getting huevos on their face.