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Learning Spanish in Mexico | T+L Family

At around 8 a.m. every day, we made the 20-minute trek to school from our rental—a new two-bedroom, two-bath stucco house that we had lined up with the help of a study-abroad service—descending 238 stairs (the kids counted) along the way. We wound through parks where pink lilies grew and small children sipped aguas frescas (fruit juices) with their parents, and by vendors selling chilaquiles, a breakfast dish of tortilla chips, beans, and salsa.

At no point did our boys object to going to school. In fact, having the same student status as their parents made them giddy with the grown-upness of it all, and not a little full of themselves. "Mamá, dónde está tu clase próxima?" Gus once hollered across the campus from an upper balcony. Occasionally during their breaks, one of the boys, eager to buy a treat at the outdoor cafeteria, would poke his head into my class and say, "Necesito quince pesos for chocolate caliente." Ordinarily disturbances like these would have irritated me, but hearing my sons speak Spanish was such a joy, I would give them a pass—and the 15 pesos.

With afternoons free for exploring, we learned as much outside school as in it. When we got turned around in our car on our way to the silver mines in Valenciana, high above Guanajuato, Robb was forced to seek help at a gas station. He managed to get us back on track, winning my heart all over again (how can I not love a man who asks directions, even in Spanish?).

I had my own linguistic struggles. On a weekend excursion to the mining town of Pozos, about 1½ hours away, I went riding with Pepe, known in these parts as the Mexican horse whisperer. As we galloped across the agave-strewn countryside, I tried to make sense of his shouted Spanish instructions (so much for the whispering) while attempting to keep a feisty mare from having her Seabiscuit breakout moment. Just as I thought a fuse in my brain would fry, I finally digested his words (sit taller, heels down, thighs tighter) and was able to relish the ride.

Gus and Jeb fared better with their Spanish. I have often read that children learn foreign languages more quickly than their elders. In fact our boys seemed to pick up words and phrases effortlessly, forcing Robb and me to sometimes rely on them for translations. At a haunted house called Casa de Tía Aura—another of the tourist sites in Guanajuato—I didn't understand the tour guide's explanation of why the owner's niece had been murdered by her fiancé. Until Jeb filled me in (the fiancée loved someone else).

Utterly lacking in self-consciousness, the boys were always keen to speak in Spanish—to buy our tortillas at the local tortillería or the tickets for the cable car up to a monument on a hill overlooking the city. One evening outside the glorious Teatro Juárez downtown, where clowns entertain crowds on the steps, Gus offered to be part of the act, the only blonde head in the group of children singing a goofy Spanish song. I couldn't muster that kind of courage. But I did go over and chat with the parents of the kids our boys approached in the park for a game of soccer. I also visited the mother of nine-year-old Sergio, who lived next door to us and became a good friend. Sitting in her kitchen over a cup of tea, we talked about the challenges of raising boys and about what Spanish books she thought my kids should read—she even gave us some to take home.

We also brought back Spanish words and phrases that we use frequently. I say basta ya ("stop it") and vente ("come here") when I really want the boys to heed me. They tell me my ideas are loca. My husband—who has never forgotten the name of each table utensil—uses mijo, a merging of mi hijo, or "my son," when talking to one of the boys; sometimes he calls me mi amorcita, which has the same effect on me as Gomez Addams's French had on Mortitia. Our new vocabulary is surely the best souvenir we've ever picked up on a family vacation. ✚

Jeannie Ralston's memoir, The Unlikely Lavender Queen, will be out from Broadway Books this spring.

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