I am posting a little progress report here on my Spanish. I could write forever about this but will try to keep a lid on it.
Obviously, I have undertaken this project without any formal instruction. There is a big difference between my approach and that approach. With formal instruction one studies the language in books and supplements that with a few simulated street sessions. I am doing street sessions supplemented by book study. I have been totally embarrassed several times upon realizing exactly what had spilled out of my mouth in speaking with one or another Mexican in Spanish. How did they keep a straight face, I wonder?
But ya gotta be fearless.
At age 62 I find this problem with book study as a way of increasing vocabulary. When one attempts to learn words within no context whatsoever it is very difficult to make them stick in your head first and foremost. Secondly and directly related to my first point, you can confuse words that you learned at the same time out of a book even though those words are entirely unrelated.
I have an acquaintance who learned the words mariscos, meaning seafood, and maricones, a derogatory term for gay men, at the same time. Shortly thereafter in a discussion with a waiter, he said maricones when he intended to say mariscos. I have done the very same thing but thankfully with different words. The point is that you find yourself saying some of the most ridiculous things because of this problem.
Context is everything. Words that one learns reading billboards, packages, the text of TV commercials, storefront signs, and the like stick better. The problem there is that when you read a word in the street, like the word for hardware store for instance, you want to practice saying it. If you are not careful, you can look like the village idiot walking down the street talking to yourself.
In the three months I have been here, a Mexican has corrected my Spanish exactly once. That had to do with when to say buenos dias, buenas tardes, and buenas noches, which is an art and not a science by the way. I believe they consider it bad manners to correct you, although I certainly would not be offended. And let's face it. Sometimes they haven't the faintest idea what you are trying to say. Nor do they ask you to repeat stupid things when they clearly heard what you said. Their usual approach when you say something stupid is to stare at you silently with a blank face and wait. When you encounter two or three long seconds of expressionless silence, you know it is time to regroup. On the other hand they will certainly help you if you ask for help.
That brings me to these goddamned verbs. The effort expended learning the names of things and adjectives and adverbs pales in comparison to the effort necessary to learn to conjugate these verbs. In Spanish as in any romance language, as many of you well know, there are verbs of regular conjugation. These can be conjugated using modifications to the infinitive that are relatively easily learned. Then there are the irregular verbs that follow no pattern of conjugation. None. The simple first person present tense of "to be" is soy. The simple first person past tense of "to be" is fui. You are reduced to brutal, rote memorization here. The problem is that the verbs you need to use the most are the irregular ones, to go, to have, to make, to be, to come, etc.
This is all complicated by the fact that Spanish has 14 different tenses of verbs, seven simple and seven compound, plus the imperative—the commands. There is not enough life left to me to master all those tenses. I have my doubts as to whether many Mexicans have mastered them all either.
For the first two months here I spoke only in the present. This gets you by in the grocery stores and restaurants and other places of that sort. I had not yet acquired enough nouns and adjectives and adverbs to have a conversation anyway. But to have a little conversation is what you really want to do, isn't it? I mean that's the whole point. So during the entire month of August until now, I have been laboring over the simple future tense and the simple past tense of these verbs. There is a trick involved here that has made it a bit simpler than I anticipated, but I won't bore you with that—those of you who have not given up on this entry out boredom already, that is.
Lastly, the little sprinkles on the cake are the idiomatic expressions, the phrases that when translated literally make little sense but are the very stuff of conversations. You do not sleep either face down or face up here. You sleep either mouth down or mouth up. Actually, that makes a little sense literally. We say, "It's sunny." Mexicans say literally, "It makes sun." We do not pull people's legs here. We pull their hair. An American might say, “I'm not biting on that,” whereas a Mexican would say, “Go to another dog with that bone.” We say, "I am hot." Mexicans say "I have heat." If a Mexican literally says, "I am hot," he or she is probably conveying something sexual. And on and on. There are thousands of idiomatic phrases that literally make even less sense than these, as there are in any language. Talk about brutal, rote memorization.
Whenever I get discouraged, I simply ponder this. At least I am not a Spanish-speaking person attempting to learn English. Jesus, I do not know how they do it.