Putting My Skills to the Test in Oaxaca

Not long after the sun had set one Friday evening in late May, Leslie and I stumbled wearily out of the Oaxaca international airport and headed toward the taxi stand for the last leg of a long day of traveling. We were on our one and only pre-wedding trip to Oaxaca, the primary purpose of which was to cram as much wedding planning as humanly possible into one 48-hour stretch. I, however, had an ulterior motive: to field test my improved Spanish-language skills.

Since returning from our previous Mexico trip in September 2010, I’ve been plugging away at Rosetta Stone Version 4 TOTALe Spanish. My linguistic performance the last time around was marked by ups and downs; I understood most of what I heard but had some real difficulties communicating what I wanted to say. So I hoped to improve my comprehension and communication, for my own benefit and for Leslie’s. She’d had to shoulder most of the wedding-planning load because of her fluency in Spanish.

bouquet of orange tulips

Courtesy of Getty Images

And so it’s difficult for me to really describe how happy I was to get into our taxi and immediately screw up. Leslie and I were going to Pino Suárez #508—quinientos ocho. For some reason, I told the cab driver quinientos y ocho—as in two different addresses on Pino Suárez. There was momentary confusion. I quickly explained my error, and we were on our way, chatting about the weather and the teacher strike planned for that Monday. I made a mistake, realized what I’d done wrong, didn’t get flustered, and set it right. Success. I get a cookie.

Then came the marathon. Over the course of Saturday and Sunday, Leslie and I met with no fewer than 20 vendors (lined up by our indefatigable, on-site wedding planner, Marcela) as we tried to nail down six months of wedding planning in 48 hours. And every word of it was in Spanish. Leslie, of course, still had to take the lead, but this time around I felt more involved. I was asking about photography rates and taxes, and inquiring about ingredients used to prepare our tasting menu. Though I was still taking time to properly construct sentences in my head, there was an ease to conversing that wasn’t there the last time we visited.

Most of the difficulty I had was with industry terminology that I just didn’t know. This problem was most pronounced when we spoke with the priest, who explained to us in intricate detail the inner workings of church bureaucracy in Mexico and the need to follow el trámite, the official procedure. At certain points I was able to glean the meanings of unfamiliar words from the context in which they were used. Coming into the trip I couldn’t have told you that we would need 10 white manteles to cover the 10 guest tables or that Leslie will walk down the aisle with a beautifully arranged ramo of flowers in her hand. Now these words are part of my vocabulary. A couple of times I had to cheat and consult with Leslie. But there were few moments when I was at a loss for words or comprehension.

It was absolutely exhausting. Having to continually move between languages eats up a lot of energy, and by the time we’d wrapped everything up, the Spanish-speaking part of my brain had just about quit.

So while I’m happy with the clear growth of my linguistic prowess, I’m also acutely aware of the next step: practice, practice, practice until thinking and speaking in Spanish come naturally and effortlessly. Thankfully, I’ve come across some effective ways to practice that I’ll describe in my next post.

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Simon Maloy

Simon Maloy is a Washington, DC-based media analyst and blogger. He studied Spanish in high school but had infrequent opportunities to practice it in the years following, and his speaking and comprehension abilities declined drastically. This became something of an urgent problem when he asked his Mexican girlfriend to marry him. Now he has a wedding in Oaxaca to plan and a whole new set of family members whose first language is Spanish. Simon used Rosetta Stone to reawaken his long-dormant Spanish skills and brush up on the basics, and now he's trying to build the expanded vocabulary and conversational expertise needed to assist his already-fluent fiancée in planning their wedding and to relate to his new in-laws in their native tongue. Simon is from Connecticut originally and graduated from Williams College with a B.A. in history. When not writing or learning Spanish, he makes pretty good ice cream and plays terrible golf.
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