The Roundabout Way

By Mark McGraw

Learning Spanish happened for me in an extremely roundabout way through my Marine Corps experience. I never took a language in high school and, curiously, I was not required to study language as part of my undergraduate degree in Geography at Texas A&M in the early ‘80’s. The semester I was to graduate from college I was annoyed to discover that I was required to take at least one three-hour language class to fulfil the requirements of my Naval ROTC scholarship. I went directly to Rick McPherson, the Marine Colonel who ran the program, and begged him to waive the required language class. “I’m going to be fighting people, not talking to them,” I reasoned [1]. Satisfied to remove a potential stumbling block between me – a mediocre student – and graduation, he waived the requirement.

But ten years later, a presentation that I heard on the training teams that the Marines were sending to Latin America infected me like a virus and I resolved to learn Spanish . . . someday. A year later, before deploying on ship to the Mediterranean for six months, I came across a couple of cassette tapes from the Defense Language Institute. The tapes consisted entirely of words in Spanish followed by the equivalent word in English with a pause between. The words were entirely random. Flecha . . . arrow . . . vaca . . . cow . . . habichuela verde . . . green bean. It was a dreadful way to try to learn language, but it was about all I had, and there I´d be at six a.m., in the ship´s gym pedaling away on the Lifecycle listening to my Spanish vocabulary tapes through the headphones of my Walkman. I even made flashcards I could study when I couldn´t have the Walkman with me. I remember being confused about how “bondadoso” is defined as “kind,” with no way to know if it was “kind” like “Be kind to animals” or “What kind of dog is that?” When I got back to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and it seemed that I may get a chance to go to immersion training in Guatemala, I started working with a CD-based Spanish program for an hour or two early in the mornings before work. It would teach you phrases you’d need on a trip, one chapter at the airport,

another at the hotel, and so forth. It included written and oral comprehension of words and short phrases and even graded phrases for pronunciation that one spoke into a microphone. I learned, for instance, that the phrase, “No te preocupes” meant “Don’t worry.” I didn’t know that it was a command, or that it was reflexive, or whether you said that to one person or a group of people, or whether you might be a little unduly familiar saying that to a person much older or senior in rank to you.

When I went to Guatemala, then, I was armed with a few phrases of introduction which I could pronounce smoothly and rapidly. I arrived in Guatemala City and was transported by a driver from the U.S. Military Group to Antigua a couple of hours away. He optimistically tried to teach me a few words along the way. I remember him replicating with his hand the motion of driving up a steep incline while saying slowly “subir, subir.” When we arrived at the Francisco Marroquín Language Project [2], I was met by a couple of staff members and my first instructor, all of whom spoke only Spanish. They warmly welcomed me and seemed delighted that I could deliver a few smooth, well pronounced greetings, which made me happy, too. They started to engage me in polite conversation and, my working knowledge and comprehension of Spanish exhausted, I smiled uncomfortably and shook my head. I punctuated my linguistic poverty with an open-hands gesture one would use to say, “That’s it. I have no more money.” Confusion spread across their faces and one of them asked the driver something that sounded like, “Well, can this guy speak Spanish or not?” The body language and tone of his response seemed to say, “Oh, this guy can speak all kinds of Spanish.” Of course, it took them just a few more seconds to confirm that I knew basically nothing. Downcast, one of them handed me an information folder with the name and address of my host family with a map and instructions for where to show up for class the next day. Since I had never had a language class, I was colossally ignorant and incurious about language learning methodology. I believed that I’d just sit across the table from a Guatemalan person and we would just speak and listen and eventually I’d collect enough words and phrases to be conversant. I had no idea that I would be tasked with systematically rewiring the logic of my brain [3].

Classes at the language project were one-on-one. The students and teachers sat across from each other at little wooden tables separated by stacks of butcher paper upon which the instructors would write upside down, an astounding skill if you think about it. The tables were arrayed around the courtyard of a home. My first teacher was Irma Floridalma, who went by Flory. She was shorter than five feet, with short, shiny black hair. So strong was her indigenous heritage that she looked Asian. She was always impeccably dressed, highly capable and all business. I soon saw that the methodology was to be within the grammatical system, which intimidated me since I was never a confident grammarian in English. We started with regular verbs in the present tense, and she showed me how the suffixes shifted according to a pattern that corresponded to the subject pronouns, just like you would do with a twelve-year-old. She would write out and explain the pattern in a way that I somehow comprehended and ask me, “¿Entiendes? (do you understand?). “Sí,” I would respond. “Bueno,” she would say. “Vamos a practicar” (Let´s practice). She would then run drills at me with the aid of a textbook that looked like it had come over with the conquistadors, verb after verb, subject pronoun after subject pronoun until I couldn´t do any more, the way you would imagine a boxing trainer would oblige a fighter to hit the heavy bag until the fighter was unable to lift his hands. Next, these verbs are irregular in the present. You must memorize them, Marcos. ¿Entiendes? Vamos a practicar [4]. Other than a short lunch, we’d only break for a few minutes for machine-brewed, real, fantastically strong coffee, which was unusual in Antigua. The coffee that was grown in the fincas that covered much of the volcanic hillsides surrounding the town was for export and the Guatemalans who lived in Antigua mostly drank freeze-dried. Flory would never work with me at a pace at which I was comfortable, a concept known in language pedagogy as “+1.” [5] We were always pressing forward into the immense universe of what I didn’t know. I was way beyond the ideal age for language learning. My brain had already lost much of the plasticity required to rapidly learn new things. The synthetic nature of the verbs, the way the subject pronoun would disappear because it was implied by the form of the verb mystified me. The syntactical difference of putting the object pronouns before conjugated verbs never failed to confuse me as to who was doing what to whom. I felt the urgency, too, to learn everything I possibly could in my seven-week stay. I was to take the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) exam at the end of the course and then the Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT) when I got back to Camp Lejeune. Then there was the practical concern of going to work in Spanish with guys carrying weapons and live ammo in Perú, where there would be a bounty on me.

I lived with a Guatemalan couple and their three kids. María and Hugo made a living by running a tiny convenience store out of the front of their home and keeping students. At any given time, there were three to five other students from Europe and the U.S. living in the house. The family spoke only Spanish and enforced the rule of “only Spanish at the kitchen table,” but we students spoke English among ourselves when we were away from the rigorous tyranny of the lessons. The other students tended to be college-aged, so I usually spent most of my weekends alone. I felt like an idiot trying to speak Spanish to people in the restaurants and shops. The highlight of most weekends was a fifteen-minute call home on a pay phone adjacent to a crowded restaurant. A few other military guys also attended the school. In the interest of keeping a low profile, we wore civilian clothes and grew our hair out a little bit. When the US military sends people abroad, the primary concern is terrorism, but petty crime was infinitely more probable in and around Antigua, with tourists occasionally being robbed at knifepoint in broad daylight. One day, when Flory and I talked about the difficulty for military guys to truly blend in with the civilian gringos attending the school, she said, “We know exactly who you guys are. Look at that guy over there, his shoes, the way he sits. Of course, he´s military.” She was right. Still, when other students asked me why I was studying Spanish, I´d answer, “I have always wanted to read Cervantes in the original language,” a foolish answer since I only had a vague idea that Cervantes wrote Don Quixote and couldn´t tell you any more about the book than a high-schooler could [6].

New language learners generally make rapid progress and hit occasional plateaus and I was no exception. I spent two weeks run aground on the famous preterit/imperfect problem, the two basic past tenses. The instructors were not allowed to speak English and all Flory could do was repeat the list of rules for when to use each tense. I eventually worked through all the indicative mood (present, preterit, imperfect, future, conditional, present perfect, past perfect) while mixing in object pronouns, adjectives, adverbs and numbers. The instructors were required to correct every single error we made, which prevented me from have having anything like a fluid conversation during a

lesson. The interruptions particularly annoyed me when I talked about my family, whom I missed terribly. One day, about four weeks in, my teacher and I went to the coffee machine and he [7] let me talk for about five minutes without stopping and correcting me. I knew what I said wasn’t mistake-free, but he let me stumble and stagger through a couple of subjects and verbal tenses as he asked me questions and prompted me with comments. I walked away from that moment realizing that I had just become a Spanish speaker in the same way we become swimmers when we discover the ability to submerge and propel ourselves through the water a short distance while holding our breath. During my final week in Antigua I had a few days to explore the subjunctive mood, which to me was like some kind of cruel trick [8]. At that point, I had so much grammar clanging around in the attic of my brain I couldn’t manage any better than a vague conceptual grasp of it. I scored a disappointing 2 on the FSI exam (with 3 being the highest) on my last day of school. On my last night at Hugo and María´s, The Simpsons dubbed in Spanish was playing on the small TV in the kitchen. Of course, the mouths didn’t match the words that were spoken in goofy cartoon voices, but I was sorely disappointed that I could understand almost nothing of the dialogue.

When I got back to the States, though, a couple of Marines who were Spanish speakers told me I had picked up an amazing amount of Spanish in that short time and was doing well. I took the DLPT and got a 2 in listening and a 3 in reading (3 was the highest. A score of 2/2 was good enough to deploy to a Spanish-speaking country). I bought better cassette tapes, some produced by Pimsleur and others made by Berlitz, and wore them out listening to them. My nearly six-month mission to Perú was a fabulous learning experience, and I’d study the subjunctive at night after the training day had ended. During my two years working at Texas A&M, I audited intermediate and advanced Spanish classes taught by some superb lecturers. Before I left Texas A&M to move to Chile, I took the DLPT again and scored 3/3.

When people ask me the best way to learn Spanish, whether the preferred method is through a grammar class, listening to music, watching telenovelas, watching movies with subtitles, reading the newspaper, or talking to native speakers, I say yes. All contact with the language is good. All exposure to the new language helps you ingrain and internalize it, even the crappy vocabulary tapes I started with. The reason people don’t retain most of what they learn in a high school or college grammar class is not because it’s not quality instruction, but because a single exposure is usually not enough for retention. For me, it took several doses, several applications of Spanish, with a little time for the “paint to dry” between each coat. I’d be taught an idiomatic expression or grammatical construction in a lesson in Guatemala or a classroom at Texas A&M, but later I’d overhear someone in a restaurant using it in context, then a month later I’d hear it in a song, then I’d read it somewhere. At some point it would come out of my mouth for the first time, probably incorrectly. A few repetitions later, I could say it correctly, eventually fluidly and without thinking. Then I’d have it. Or so I thought.

When I went to Chile for a two-year assignment, fully plunged into the contextualized language environment of the Chilean Navy, I was initially embarrassed and frustrated by how poorly I was doing. I struggled through some of the most basic conversations with some of the Chilean officers, leaving them with looks on their faces like, “Get a load of this guy.” My disappointment was compounded by the fact that I was doing poorly in something I thought I had gotten pretty good at. Even though a lot of the officers spoke some English, I was doggedly determined to speak nothing but Spanish with the Chileans. I knew that it would only take an overheard spare phrase in English here and there for rumors like “He can’t speak Spanish” and “He only wants to speak English” to start spreading. And I didn’t want a crutch. I trusted that the sooner I bashed through the discomfort of poor communication skills, the better the whole experience would be.

Since adult learners of a second language store their new language in a different part of the brain than their primary language, it could be argued that you are something of a different person when you speak your second language. I believe this phenomenon could certainly describe me. I´m not normally an especially outgoing person, but in Spanish I´ll talk with the taxi driver, the yard man, or anyone else who seems the least bit disposed to conversation. A stray conversation here and there constitutes a great learning opportunity: about the language, local geography, customs, systems and values. And certainly, it´s an attempt to earn the ego-stroking compliment by the other person for speaking their language well.

There are a several reasons why Chilean Spanish is especially difficult to comprehend. The first goes back to the original Spanish conquest and settlement of the Americas beginning in the 1500’s, when

conquistadors and colonists came over from Andalusia and Basque country, the extreme southern and northern parts of Spain. Being from the extreme periphery of Spain, the Spanish of those settlers was not as conventional as the Castilian spoken by people from Spain’s geographic and political center. To pronounce leche as “leshe” and chico as “shico” (which Chileans consider a sign of unsophistication and poor education) is a linguistic echo of the time before the 1500´s in Spain when Castilian Spanish in the south of Spain was still heavily influenced by Arabic. Another reason for the uniqueness of Chilean Spanish is that, because of Chile’s geographical isolation on the extreme edge of South America, words unique to Chile have developed that are different from what a North American or European will learn in a Spanish class (polola instead of novia for girlfriend, choclo instead of maíz for corn, palta instead of aguacate for avocado, poroto instead of frijol or habichuela for bean, mina instead of mujer for woman, gallo instead of hombre for man, fome instead of aburrido for boring). The third phenomenon is a Chile-specific second person familiar (tú) form of address that is considerably different from either the peninsular Spanish or the Spanish spoken on the other side of the Andes in Argentina and Uruguay. To top it off, spoken Chilean Spanish is lightning fast, and some of the s´s and d´s disappear from the middles and ends of words.

I confess that I love the sound of Chilean Spanish. Many dialects of Spanish are musical, but Chileans, especially those from Santiago, employ an unusually high tone to emphasize a point and punctuate sentences with the word po, which would be pues everywhere else in the Spanish-speaking world. Today, years after leaving Chile, I can still identify a Chilean just by hearing a couple of phrases. Riding the city bus in Florence, Italy, recently, I overheard two twentysomething guys speaking Spanish. I guessed that they were not only Chileans, but from Santiago. I staggered from hand hold to hand hold across the rocking bus to them and struck up a conversation to confirm my guess. I was correct.

Regarding the comprehension problem, in my defense I must point out that something in the national DNA causes Chileans to often answer direct questions with responses that have nothing to do with the question asked. If they feared that an accurate answer to a question I posed might reveal a lack of knowledge or diligence on their part, they would simply respond with information they wanted me to know. For example, I would ask a soldado on a field training exercise a question like, “Why do you have the mortar set up here?” He might answer, “Bueno, mi mayor, lo que pasa es

que [9] (Well, Major, what´s happening is) . . . the sun came up from over here . . . and the wind was blowing from over here . . . and we never got breakfast this morning.” During my first few months in Chile I would walk away from an exchange like that shaking my head, crestfallen at what I took for my poor comprehension. “I thought I understood all the words he said, but it didn’t make any sense so I must be wrong.” Eventually, if it were in a work context, I would listen patiently to the response without interrupting, and then say, “Magnífico, pero mi pregunta fue . . . ” (That´s great, but my question was . . . ).

In addition to pure linguistic challenges and the national idiosyncrasies about answering uncomfortable questions, I would also run into comprehension problems which were rooted in simple systematic differences. Paying for groceries was an exercise in confusion and frustration until I figured out the system. Early in our time in Chile I’d pay for groceries with a credit card (Visa seems to be universally accepted in Chile), something that should be laughably easy and straightforward, but I would run into problems. The checker will run the card and first ask you, “¿con cuotas o sin cuotas?” I had never in my language learning run into the word cuotas [10] and since it´s a false cognate with the English word quotas, I became mired in the quicksand of incomprehension. Even if you had a good dictionary at hand (and the grocery store checkout line is not a good place to pull that out), cuotas in the way it´s being used here is third or fourth down the list of possible English definitions. The first definition is actually fees. Do you want fees? No, I don’t want fees. But it’s not fees in the Chilean checkout line. What they are asking is if you want to pay for your purchase in monthly installments, a possibility I never considered since I´m generally always paying my credit card expenses in installments anyway. In Chile you may also be asked at the cash register if you want to donate the change that would round up to the next peso to some charity. Hogar de Cristo (Christ´s Home) was common. But the checker, in a hurry, bored from saying the same thing all day, and probably looking at the cash register while he or she says it, says something that comes out as a stream of unintelligible utterance ending in –isto. So you say yes. Or no. Or you ask for clarification with a line of people waiting behind you. She or he explains. You still don´t understand, so you say no just to be safe. The cashier frowns because either you didn´t understand or were too stingy to give something like sixty-three centavos (equivalent to about 10 cents in US currency) to help poor people. You shuffle out with your groceries confused and embarrassed with

what you´re sure are the stares of twenty Chilean people burning holes in your back. It would often occur to me that people visiting the US would run into similar systematic mismatches that went beyond language, resulting in the same confusion and embarrassment for them in my country.

Time, effort and contact got me the breakthrough I needed in Chile, though. Eventually I could negotiate daily tasks como un chileno más. I realized I had come a long way one morning riding the van into work with a bunch of Chilean officers. I heard an entire phrase that consisted entirely of Navy slang, Chilean slang, profanity and nicknames. I understood it all. That´s when I knew I was going to be OK in Chile.


[1] No one is more unshakably certain about the specifics of her or his future than a college senior.

[2] Proyecto Lingüístico Francisco Marroquín was the biggest and seemingly most reputable of what seemed to be a hundred Spanish schools in Antigua. The school taught Spanish to foreigners and used the profits to study, document, and preserve indigenous languages in Guatemala. 

[3] Spanish is a Romance language. English is a Germanic one. Although there are many Latin-based cognates, they obey different systems of logic.

[4] If this sounds like the dreaded “drill and kill” method disparaged by so many non-traditional language programs, it may have been. But we also learned an enormous amount of language through exposure to a high volume of comprehensible input, learning to understand (and later mimic) what our instructors were telling us as they roamed into unfamiliar grammar and vocabulary. Somehow (I attribute it more to the instructors´ skill than mine) I nearly always understood everything my instructors told me although it was always in Spanish.

[5] +1 means that the student is always straining to add just one more concept, one new grammatical or syntactic wrinkle. But +2 is too much, the student becomes humiliated, frustrated and defeated.

[6] Sixteen years later I would write my doctoral dissertation on Don Quixote.

[7] We switched off teachers every two weeks or so. Later in the course I had a retired pro soccer player named José as my instructor.

[8] It was as if the conjugations I had worked to learn for the previous six weeks were a fool’s errand. The subjunctive is a grammatical mood we rarely use in English but is used all the time in Spanish. I didn´t realize that forming the subjunctive was very similar to the process of making formal commands: flipping the thematic vowel from “a” to “e” and “e” or “i” to “a” while watching out for a handful of irregulars. Trying to teach me subjunctive my last week in the course was like handing a brick to a drowning man.

[9] This phrase was usually employed to give the speaker time to invent an adequately believable response.

[10] I have taught college Spanish with at least four different textbooks, and I don’t think I’ve come across cuotas in the basic vocabulary, either