Speaking Spanish, Sort of

When I moved to Arizona, I decided I’d like to learn Spanish. I’m a bit long in the tooth to go to a traditional class, and time is at a premium while I’m building my training business, but still. . .

So my language lessons come in the grocery store. I shop at Hispanic markets, most of which are simply wonderful, stocked with helpful, friendly employees, who smile when I ask for help–for both ingredients and language.

jamaicaI’m only a bit embarrassed to admit that my vocabulary of baked goods and snacks is a lot better than for meat and vegetables. That photo on the left is of dried hibiscus blossoms, used to steep a tea, which is then chilled and served over ice as aqua fresca, “fresh water” or an ice tea that is bright red, herbal and delicious. In Spanish, ‘hibiscus’ is ‘jamaica,’ which explains a lot.

Last night I had a tiny breakthrough, but breakthrough it was. I walked into a store, managed to buy shrimp without too much difficulty, although I mangled the numbers, not knowing whether I was asking for 12 shrimp or 12 pounds of shrimp. ( Not to put too fine a point on it, had I been in a big box store, the employee would have shrugged and piled up 12 pounds of shrimp, because they are not trained to think, just get you out the door.) The woman behind the counter asked, in English, if I wanted 12 shrimp (one pound) or 12 pounds. She then told me the difference in Spanish. I had learned something.

Next I was off to the bakery counter. I said, “Yo quiero dos empanadas, por favor. Uno de crema y uno de pina.” (I’d like two turnovers, please. One cheese and one pineapple.) The clerk picked up a tray and a bag and asked, in Spanish, “for here or to go?” I’d never heard the expression for ‘to go,’ but I figured it out from the tray and bag. I pointed toward the bag, and said, “to go,” using the same words he had used. He didn’t blink, handed me the bag, and I said, “Gracias.” (Thank you.) I then walked to the check out stand, and when the checker said, (in Spanish), “the empanadas are fresh, huh?” I said, also in Spanish, “I like fresh empanadas. They are yummy.” She rang me up and told me how much I owed. In Spanish. Fast. If it hadn’t been for the screen with the number on it, I would have had to admit I had no idea how much to pay.

The joy in the three minutes from bakery to check out, no one had to correct me, and I was spoken to in Spanish. That means that my Spanish is good enough to be understood, grammatical enough not to mark me as a slow learner, and idiomatic enough to elicit Spanish responses. Tiny victory, but I’m grinning. Pineapple empanadaas are a little piece of heaven.

–Image: photograph of dried hibiscus blossoms, Quinn McDonald. Story and image, (c) 2008, All rights reserved. Quinn McDonald is a life-long learner and a training developer in, well, communication topics. See her work at QuinnCreative.com