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Learning Spanish in Cuernavaca, Mexico

© Trujillo/Paumier Scene from the Zocalo, Cuernavaca's main plaza.

Photo: Trujillo/Paumier

A great accomplishment for me, that is, with my seemingly hard-wired resistance to learning a second language. In high school, at my father’s insistence, I studied Latin, little of which penetrated me, none of which I can recall. In college, a school where four semesters of foreign language classes were required for a diploma, I crammed and faked my way through French 1–4, sometimes reduced to begging the instructors for mercy in order to pass. I have stared at translations of my own novels as if they were out-of-focus photographs of distant relatives.

As soon as I enrolled in classes, a sense of impending failure came over me. Coming up short in French back in college was one thing—I only had to squirm for 45 minutes, three times a week. Here, I was going to be in class from 8 a.m. to 2:20 p.m., and there would be no more than five people in the room. The potential for embarrassment seemed boundless. Compounding my sense of dread was the school’s urging that we students stay with a Mexican host family. No afternoons at the poolside?No room service?No possibility of catching a few sets of the Australian Open on TV?No respite from self-improvement?I finally agreed to one week with a Mexican family, and I only did it for you, dear reader.

I think things would have gone better in the rather luxurious house to which I was assigned had I not been caught helping myself to peanuts when I was drunk one night and thought I might send a squadron of legumes down into my digestive tract to help me sober up. And as polite as the woman of the house and her ferociously fit boyfriend were, at times the realization that I was expected to be front and center for lunch and dinner made me want to howl with frustration. What I’m saying here is that most of the schools in Cuernavaca will urge the homestay option upon you and will even say it is an integral part of learning Spanish, and they will assure you that the houses are comfortable, which they are, and that the food is good, which it is, good and safe for the gringo stomach, and it is very, very reasonable, and that it is very interesting to be even a tangential part of a Mexican home, and, most important (and this is the part they won’t tell you) you should definitely stay in a hotel, if you possibly can, and if you don’t have enough money for a hotel then you should take out a low-interest loan from a friend, to whom you can, if you wish, show this paragraph.

My first day of school is a Monday—new students are admitted every Monday. The school’s director, a dark, handsome man in his forties with a melancholy, weary smile, makes a quick evaluation of how much Spanish I don’t know and decides there are no other students currently enrolled who are at my level. I am put in a class consisting only of a teacher and me, which might make someone else feel lucky, but which fills me with the kind of dread that can descend upon you at someone’s house when you realize no one else has been invited to dinner and you are going to have to participate in every minute of conversation.

My teacher, Alberto, is a 40-year-old man who looks about 20. His great gift as a teacher is to appear to be merely spending time with me. I have been given a bright yellow workbook in which lessons are laid out, and Alberto does trot me through the pages at a nice clip, but at least half our time together is spent conversing in Spanish, which means that he speaks—about his life in his parents’ house, his months in northern California, the rising price of tortillas, the price of a windbreaker in Mexico compared with its price in the United States—and I listen, though every once in a while, out of the sheer need to hear my own voice, I chip in some idea, a thought simple and small enough to be expressed in my trembling handful of Spanish words, hitherto random and unconnected, but with which I now attempt to construct a comprehensible sentence, much as a castaway might build a little lean-to out of junk he finds on the beach.

Classes run for 50 minutes, with 10-minute breaks in between. In the virtually unvarying Cuernavacan sunlight, breaks are spent either around the school’s small swimming pool or at the little outdoor cafeteria. Cuauhnáhuac has a Spanish-only policy, which the teachers adhere to virtually all the time, and most of the students do their best not to relapse into English. The school’s pedagogical strategy is based on the idea that if given no viable alternatives, even the most resistant students will learn how to make themselves understood in Spanish. But on that first day it all seems fairly hopeless, and the deluge of Spanish pouring over my head makes no greater inroads into my brain than dangling your feet in a rushing stream would quench your thirst.

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