Cracking the Egg of Language


After 3 months, 2 weeks and two days in Spanish class, I may not be able to speak the language, but I can tell you this — learning a language sometimes resembles counting sand on a very large beach grain by grain.  It’s hard, it’s tedious, and it never ends, which something to bear in mind the next time you stand behind a non-native English speaker who’s ordering something and start to think impatient, unkind thoughts about them.

Right now, I’m in a class of 8 that meets Monday through Friday morning for four hours.

We’re taught by 2 teachers who trade off halfway through the class. It’s hard to know if they trade responsibility for us because being with us for any longer than two hours at a stretch would exhaust even their patience — or if it’s because if we only had one teacher the whole time, we’d never be able to understand anyone else in Spain.

Our first teacher is a younger woman who keeps her own counsel and has infinite patience.  Does she have a boyfriend?  A girlfriend?  A cat?  She never lets on.  In fact, I’ve now spent 80 hours in the same room with her and I don’t even know if she actually lives in Madrid. Last week in class she recommended a vegetarian restaurant, and it was as if a window onto her life had opened for the very first time.

Our other teacher greets us every morning as homey and sista. When we truly make a hash of things, he’s prone to exploding whathefuc’? or fatal, which means terrible, but sounds oh so much better. He likes rap and The Wire.  He lived in Manchester and travelled to China.

And who are we, these eight students? We are lost souls who cannot communicate. We are here for love, for family, to better our job chances.   We are homey and sista.  We are three of us American, three of us Chinese, and two of us from the Philippines.

One of the Americans is tall, one of them is young, and one of them is me.  One of the things I never really understood about us, about Americans, until I started language classes is that we’re, like, the golden retrievers of humanity.  We’re easily recognizable. We assume everybody’s going to like us.  We’re happy to share our opinions about just about anything.

I now see how seductive this might seem from the outside.  I also recognize just how deeply annoying this can be to the rest of the world.

The two Filipinos are young sisters who both work at sweatshop-like language academies where they teach English from 4 pm -10 pm, where they’ve been told by their bosses that if the lessons they’ve planned make their students swear a lot, it means they’re doing a good job.

The students from China have selected for themselves English names, or have had English names selected for them by teachers who taught them Spanish in China in their previous lives.  After having been fed through the meatgrinder of three languages, the names of the three in my class might be Presse, Ugo and Demonio. Unlike us Americans, so downright thrilled  to clamber up on our soapboxes at the drop of a hat, they prefer to remain mum about… just about everything.

This could be because it’s way too exhausting to carry on this way in a third language, or it might be because — just why would they want to get up on soapboxes of any sort whatsoever?

Tomorrow, the eight of us will take our Orales.  Those of us who choke and can’t pass will be booted back to the beginning of B1.

When we were told this today, a collective shiver went through the class.  We might not have chosen this group of people to spend half our time with, but at least we’re familiar with each other.  To start all over again, a new teacher, a new person sitting on either side of us? To have to explain ourselves, all over again?

It would be a fate worse than death. This airless classroom where we sit together every day in this world where we never completely understand whathefuc’ is going on sometimes feels like the only life vest we have.