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September 19, 2015 /

Old perro, new tricks


I took Spanish in high school because I had to. Alternatively, I could have chosen French or German but I figured Spanish would be much more useful in my day-to-day world. I’ve never had a good ear for languages or accents, but, after three years of struggling, I ended up with a moderate grasp of conversational Spanish.

The problem with trying to learn anything only because it’s required is that, once the lessons are over, the motivation (in this case, a good grade) is gone and whatever knowledge managed to penetrate my cranium starts to fade away. Lessons learned in subjects I loved – English, social studies, history, art – are still with me for the most part. Algebra, chemistry, and Spanish… not so much.

I actually know a number of Spanish words and I can even put together a few complete sentences. But, since I live in a border city, I probably would have risen to this barely-literate level even without taking classes in high school. I’m fairly confident that the few swear words I have in my meager Spanish vocabulary weren’t taught to me in school, but instead from several helpful kitchen crews I worked with as I waitressed my way through college.

I have often regretted not building on my Spanish skills since I graduated from high school. I have had many co-workers and friends who were fluent speakers and I know they would have been happy to let me practice on them. A lot of my reluctance has been my insecurity with my accent and, frankly, not wanting to look – or sound – silly. Since most native Spanish speakers I interact with are also fluent in English, I’ve taken the lazy person’s way out and opted to converse in the language that is most comfortable for me.

On my long list of want-to-dos in retirement (or jubilación in Spanish – isn’t that a great word? It sounds like jubilation) is to take classes in subjects of interest to me. I’ve already taken several photography and photo editing classes and I’ve signed up for a few lectures on interesting topics. Between our local community college’s continuing education offerings, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute classes, and our local Oasis Institute, I could happily become a full-time student again.

Most recently, my husband and I have started taking a class in beginning Spanish. Not only do we want to better understand and converse in a language we hear just about every day, we are contemplating arranging for an extended stay in Oaxaca, Mexico. Although we hope to take Spanish classes while we are there (in addition to cooking and art classes), we want to have at least some of the basics under our belts before we arrive. Right now, we could successfully ask where the bathroom (baño) is and order a beer (cerveza) – obviously both very important – but we would have trouble with anything more complicated.

So far, the class is very different from my high school experience. The teacher is fun and not at all intimidating, my fellow students are older and grayer, and the text book contains words and phrases that one might actually hear in the real world. The biggest difference is that we are there because we want to be. The only requirements are the ones we put on ourselves: listen, participate, practice, do our homework, and, most of all, enjoy the process of learning a new skill.



Leave a Comment
  1. Kate Crimmins / Sep 19 2015 4:36 pm

    I had 3 years of Spanish and I was good at it….then. Even though there is a big Latino population where I live, my Spanish is basic. Yes I can ask about the bathroom and order beer and a few more things but I’m not anywhere near fluent. With language I think you have to use it or you lose it. Good luck with your lessons. A long stay in Mexican will reinforce what you learn so it should stick.

  2. / Sep 19 2015 4:49 pm

    I find that when I get the courage to ask someone a question in Spanish, they often answer back in Spanish so I’m lost. I can ask where the bathroom is, but don’t tell me (in Spanish) that it’s down three blocks, turn left, then right two blocks further. Yes, I’m hoping that with full immersion, it will stick better. Either that or I’ll be ordering a lot of beer and going to the bathroom often… but not much else.

  3. snakesinthegrass2014 / Sep 19 2015 5:05 pm

    I admire both of you for taking this class. I tried an adult education class in Clovis (CA) many years ago, and I ended up with a teacher who taught in a very aggressive, Socratic style. It felt more like a required immersion course for foreign diplomats rather than a gentle, conversational study for community residents. So I ended up bailing after only three sessions. But you’re inspiring me to try it again.

    • / Sep 19 2015 5:49 pm

      The instructor makes such a difference. Try again, you may find the next teacher much more to your liking. I hope our teacher will push us enough… I fear she may be too nice.

  4. Shelley / Sep 20 2015 4:30 am

    Have you discovered ? It is a great on line tool that makes learning a language fun. I used it before my global volunteer project in Mexico and it helped me tremendously. I’m so glad you are considering living in Mexico for an extended period. I;m already anticipating that blog!

    • / Sep 20 2015 2:08 pm

      I’ll have to check that out, Shelley. I know there are a few good translation apps too. I sure hope all the pieces come together for our trip. We found a great three bedroom house to rent – extremely reasonable.

  5. btg5885 / Sep 20 2015 6:10 am

    You are an example for us all and yes that is a great word for retirement. Best wishes on the classes. Keith

    • / Sep 20 2015 2:10 pm

      Thanks, Keith! I really hope it sticks this time. I don’t harbor any illusions that I will become anything close to fluent, but I hope to feel relatively comfortable having a (simple) conversation with someone.

      • btg5885 / Sep 20 2015 2:26 pm

        At least you have a head start. I decided to take German in high school, but remember only some, as well.

  6. rporter610 / Sep 20 2015 9:06 am

    Glad to hear you are studying Spanish again. I began my study with audio tapes about six years ago as I prepared for my first visit to Oaxaca. If you have not traveled there before, then you will love it. If you have been there in the past, you will like it even better with the recent improvements in streets and sidewalks. Take a look at my post about Oaxaca . There are some wonderful Spanish language schools there where you can take lessons in private or with a group. Enjoy! I look forward to seeing posts about your trip.

    • / Sep 20 2015 2:18 pm

      We were inspired to plan a trip to Oaxaca by a friend who stayed there for a few weeks and took language classes. We aren’t sure how basic they are (hers was fairly advanced and, of course, taught in Spanish) so we felt it would be best to at least start the process here. I am looking forward to reading your post… thanks for the link! Recommendations and insights from those who have gone before are always welcomed!

  7. Carol Ferenc / Sep 20 2015 11:05 am

    Jubilation! It does sound like the joy of retirement. I’ve always loved community ed or any type of adult learning venues. There’s something about being surrounded by my gray haired peers, in a learning environment, that makes me feel like a kid again.

    • / Sep 20 2015 2:21 pm

      I agree! So far I’ve been impressed with the quality of the teachers. And, the classes have been free or nearly so. Anyone who finds themselves bored in retirement just has to look around. There is so much out there – at least in a community of any size.

  8. joannesisco / Sep 20 2015 11:34 am

    I could take most of this post, substitute french instead of Spanish and it would apply neatly to me as well. I regularly regret my lack of fluency … or a reasonable approximation of it.

    Congrats on re-embracing it. I’m sure vacationing in Mexico will help to solidify your new found skills 🙂

    • / Sep 20 2015 2:27 pm

      I think French would truly have led to my downfall. At least in Spanish, they pronounce all the letters (of course, my teacher made that observation right before telling us that “Hs” were silent). All languages have their quarks… just some more than others.

      • joannesisco / Sep 21 2015 5:10 am

        How right you are! I once read an article about the English language and never realized exactly how many quirks existed in our language! I have a new-found respect for those who have to learn it as a 2nd language!

  9. Kristine Puzel / Sep 20 2015 11:44 am

    How fun to take a Spanish class– ! Good for the brain synapses too! I have always thought it was interesting that the word Oaxaca looks NOTHING like how it is pronounced.

    • / Sep 20 2015 2:32 pm

      Hola. I had heard the name “Oaxaca” way before I saw it spelled out and, at first, had no idea they were one and the same. My teacher is from there so I hope to get good travel recommendations from her.

  10. ischuma / Sep 20 2015 1:08 pm

    I agree learning a language needs a lot of motivation and knowing what to use it for later. Spanish is my third foreign language and which I started to learn much later in life – and I am so much more impatient now to get started ! (It can be so boring to go through those text book dialogues during the first few month…) I find an intercambio a lot more fun – a language exchange allows you to pick more interesting subjects and you make new friends at the same time 😉

    • / Sep 20 2015 3:33 pm

      Intercambio… that’s a new one for me. I agree that an exchange is best, but I want to make at least a little sense first. I remember those silly dialogues in the high school text books. Many of the phrases they taught were (come to find out) very formal in tone. I’m interested in a more casual, friendly exchange. I am impressed that you know so many different languages.

  11. lisadorenfest / Sep 20 2015 3:32 pm

    I love the title and picture for this post. Totally cracked me up. I admire you for taking on Spanish. It will definitely benefit you in your travels and even at home. While I always manage to pick up a few words/phrases in the places that I have travel, I mostly feel like the ‘stupid’ American who only speaks English.

    • / Sep 20 2015 3:51 pm

      I think, as Americans, we get lazy since so many people can speak our language (I know I do). I’ve even met Americans who resented it if the local people didn’t speak English. How crazy is that? You’ve traveled to so many countries it certainly would be hard to know that many languages but I bet the people you interact with appreciate it if you know a few words and at least try.

      • lisadorenfest / Sep 20 2015 4:10 pm

        I love my country but some of my countrymen are a bit too close minded (crazy). Locals definitely do seem to appreciate attempts to speak their language. And The Captain speaks 4 languages (his native Italian as well as English, French and Spanish) which is hugely helpful when we sail into countries that speak those languages.

  12. Terri Webster Schrandt / Sep 20 2015 4:11 pm

    Taking classes for adult ed and because you want to sounds wonderful, Janis! I so wish I had taken Spanish in HS too! I took Latin which means I have a great vocabulary and understand root words in writing. You met my hubby–his Spanish is South American and very cultured, compared to the California “Mexican” Spanish spoken here (and in SD). He also learned German as his first language but gets rusty when not used too much. Your upcoming stay in Oaxaca sounds great. Learn some Spanish then be prepared for a more cultured sound and dialect in Oaxaca compared to border towns.

    • / Sep 20 2015 4:40 pm

      That’s a good point. I imagine they do speak a different dialect there. So often what we hear around here is “Spanglish” or at least pretty casual. Latin wasn’t offered in my high school but I would have still probably opted for Spanish. Knowing some Latin can be pretty helpful, though.

  13. betsysbeat / Sep 21 2015 10:09 pm

    Good for you! I’m in the same boat. Took four years of Spanish in high school in San Diego but let most of it lapse. I’ve started practicing with our housekeeper but I’d love to go back and do Spanish classes again. That’s great you’re doing it together!

    • / Sep 22 2015 4:17 pm

      So much of what we learned in K-12 was because we had to. I think things sink in more when you are learning because you want to. Too bad our brains aren’t as nimble as they were back then. Practicing with your housekeeper is a good idea!

  14. Colleen Pizarev / Sep 21 2015 10:37 pm

    Good for you. As someone who speaks a few languages (Spanish being one of them) I find it heartwarming when other people choose to do the same. Buena suerte, amiga. 🙂

    • / Sep 22 2015 4:12 pm

      Gracias! I, as a struggling second language learner, am amazed at those who have several languages at their disposal. I know it is quite common in other countries to know at least two, often three or four, but we Americans expect everyone to speak English. I sure wish I had paid more attention back in high school, but late is better than never.

  15. Kathy @ SMART Living / Sep 27 2015 3:48 pm

    Hi Janis! Good for you for taking Spanish again. And did we tell you we visited Oaxaca last September for a week. It’s GREAT city and you will love it. There are LOTS of spanish classes there as well as cooking classes…the food is AWESOME. The people were wonderful and we enjoyed our time there. Oh, and did I mention the Mezcal? We did a “tour” and have been hooked ever since. Just thinking about it makes me want to return. ~Kathy

    • / Sep 27 2015 4:49 pm

      I had remembered that you traveled to Mexico, but not specifically Oaxaca. I’ve now re-read your posts and think we might take a few of your suggestions (fly from TJ, add a few other stops along the way, etc.). I may contact you as we make our plans – we aren’t currently sure when that will be – to pick your brain some more. I love that you are such a good planner. I try to be, but I can learn a few tricks.

  16. Polly Huffman / Sep 30 2015 6:50 pm

    Very exciting! You two are becoming world travelers!

    • / Oct 1 2015 3:27 pm

      I’m not sure “world” travelers, but we certainly want to see as many places as we can while we are able to.

  17. Tamara R / Oct 6 2015 6:07 am

    How wonderful! I’m doing much the same in retirement, and I so enjoy it. I am currently taking three courses at our OLLI program, plus doing the above mentioned Duolingo online, plus Roseta Stone. Very slowly progress is being made. Amazingly slow. But, still, when I look back, I can see a good amount of progress, so I remain motivated.

    I’ve just signed up for two weeks of Spanish immersion in Costa Rica with one of my fellow classmates, and am very excited about it. There is also a summer immersion program at Lake Tahoe Community College I’min process of investigating.

    Yes, I absolutely concur that there is no reason to fear boredom in reirement unless you choose it.

    • / Oct 14 2015 10:36 am

      Your Costa Rica trip sounds amazing, but taking an immersion course sounds terrifying! After a few weeks of Spanish, Duolingo, and practicing when I can (we’ve eaten at way more Mexican restaurants then usual), I still feel like a toddler.

      I am so grateful for all of the free or near-free courses that are available for retirees. How could anyone be bored?

  18. Jay / Oct 7 2015 3:32 pm

    That is a beautiful word, and a reminder to people to do it up right!

  19. roughwighting / Nov 22 2015 5:43 am

    Yes, my guy and I have said the same thing for the past few years – ‘we must take Spanish classes.’ While living in the bay area, we practiced with the staff at our local café, who were very patient with us. But a consistent class should make it easier. How’s it going?

    • / Nov 23 2015 3:55 pm

      Our 10-week (once-a-week) beginning class just ended last Monday. The key, of course, is practice, practice, practice. We enjoy trying out our few words with anyone who will put up with us. Most people say that total immersion is the way to go and, as scary as it sounds, I think they are probably right!

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