For ‘amiable half-wit’ Spanish is a challenge

After returning home from class, everything is quickly forgotten

Unkind people are always asking me why I am not yet bilingual, and it hurts. My French teacher at boarding school when I was a boy would sigh and call me an amiable half-wit after listening to my translation of a few lines of Victor Hugo.


It has been clear from the start that English and only English would be my lingua franca in this life.

But that is not to say I have completely given up, for my current wife of some 30 years chases me off to Spanish classes when she finds me hiding inside the cupboard.

Each time I go to these things I end up wearing the dunce hat, it seems. People who have never heard the language spoken appear to get the rules after a brief introduction by the happy teacher. I, on the other hand, do not make him happy.

Mr. Fergus (not his real name), a retired Spanish instructor from Canada, opens his condo several times a week to teach the language he has loved so long. However, his face falls on catching sight of me as if he wished he taught Beginners’ Plumbing.

I dart past the others to get the one soft chair in the place. He has made his condo into an authentic hacienda, whereby everything is big, wooden and hard. To spend an hour there is akin to being on your knees in anguished confession.

The good news in all of this is that after a lesson I feel as if I am bilingual, but only in the subject that Mr. Fergus taught that particular day. Of course, I am usually unilingual by the time I reach home and have forgotten everything, but for a while I walk the streets of our town babbling in Spanish.


But I have had one or two upsets along the way.

For instance, walking home after a very thorough lesson dealing with family figures I was approached by a local who, noticing that I wore a watch, asked me “Qué hora?” which even I knew meant he was asking what time it was.

However, I was so programmed to the family theme, I immediately said “Tengo dos hermanas,” or “I have two sisters.” This produced a look of consternation from the man in question, who must surely have thought he was talking to an imbecile.

I could not stop. “Tengo un tío” (“I have one uncle”). He began to move away from me. I felt something was wrong, so I kept saying things from the recent lesson, which made the poor guy flee.

I have seen him several times since but when I wave at him he crosses the street and reverses direction.

It is frustrating for someone like me who loves everything Mexican, or at least most things, but who cannot learn the language that comes so easily to many around me. I know there are others like me out there, but we are bashful.

People are always asking me to join groups. There are dozens of them sprouting up all the time. I won’t get into what they do because I am bound to upset someone, but there are lots.

I generally decline to join anything. People are always sneering, “What do you do every day?” Well, as the song goes, “Staying alive, staying alive.” I seem to be fully occupied in making it to tomorrow and then the next day, because frankly I am worried about the whole “dropping dead” thing.

I love my five o’clock martini and then the mandatory bottle of chablis through dinner followed by a “Sticky,” as an Australian friend of mine called an after-dinner Remy.

But here is the big thing. If you do that at night, you must have a regimen for the morning that will mend the previous night’s “kidney killer.”

So two glasses of water upon awakening, followed by a two-kilometer run along the malecón. Exercises on the way back. More water. Hot lemon water followed by tea with honey and yogurt with fruit, generally berries.

All will be good, or at least it is so far.

Christopher Dalton has produced multitudes of commercials as well as 14 movies in Canada and the U.S. He was expelled from every institute of higher learning, forcing him hide out in advertising and movies until popping up in Puerto Vallarta with his long-suffering wife Michelle. Visit his web site

© Christopher Dalton 2016

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  • Chris, you are not alone. I have been around Spanish for a “few years” and I am still slow. I don’t let it bother me. I have four kids and I do what I can. Just don’t give up and you are already winning 🙂 Good article 🙂

  • Don Neilson

    Two years of Spanish in High School, over 50 years ago, twenty five years of traveling in northern Mexico listening to the locals, two weeks of concentrated Spanish lessons in La Paz just three years ago, and I still can’t speak Spanish with any degree of proficiency. Something about aging brain cells not being as absorbent as the cells that used to live there. I sympathize.

  • Pete L.

    It could be worse, Chris. Did you hear about the ex-pat woman (true story) who meant to order huevos rancheros for breakfast and ordered hombres con huevos instead? See what I mean? Hang in there.

  • cooncats

    My response is “tengo uno taco.” What was that question again? Learning Spanish at age 71 is a killer but it is fun. And our Mexican friends appreciate the laughs.

  • PintorEnMexico

    Working in Venezuela as a volunteer I was often accosted by kids wanting to show their knowledge of English. They would come up and ask “How are you, my friend?” Wanting to mess with them a bit I’d look at my watch and reply, “Ten-thirty.” Then, looking confused, he would go back to his friends and ask, “Como se dice, Como está usted?”

    • Güerito

      LOL! I’ll have to try that next time. “My friend” is really ubiquitous down here, too, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Also Mister – usually “Me-stare.” I don’t think they teach “Sir” in English classes down here. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it, except those truly fluent.

  • Claudia O

    I’ve been struggling with Spanish for 6 years…but hey,
    at 60 something i can’t even remember my words in English.

  • Crewlaw

    No offense, but it sounds a little like the reason you don’t learn Spanish is because you are too busy either drinking or getting over last night’s drinking. 🙂
    My standard answer when I’m asked why I don’t speak more Spanish is a bit of a headshake/sigh and “Just lazy and stupid I guess.” which always gets a laugh and pretty much kills any further exploration of the subject. Closer to the real reason is, I didn’t like having to bother with people much when they spoke English at me. Now, I’m afraid I find ‘Lo siento, no entiendo.” a convenient way of staying to myself. I know, ‘people who need people…’ and all that, but we’re not all wired the same, eh?

  • mikegre

    “I seem to be fully occupied in making it to tomorrow and then the next day, because frankly I am worried about the whole “dropping dead” thing. ” Made me laugh….Thanks!

  • douglas ledbury

    On the subject of drink, and stickies, love the old colonial English name for first hit at the bar,
    posted to faraway lands, “elevenses”

  • Jrgvsqz

    I’m Mexican but was born in the US, lived there most of my life. Learned Spanish from my mother. Have lived in mexico since is I was 31. 8 years now, and while I speak pretty good, I will never understand it 100%. There are jokes with that have “doble sentido” double meaning. Those are the worst. Everyone is laughing and I’m sitting there like an idiot because I don’t get the joke. So, while I’m not exactly in your shoes, I can tell you that if it’s hard for me, I can imagine how hard it is for someone starting from scratch.

  • The key is to not speak anything except Spanish and study, study, study – you cannot really comprehend and put together reasonably grammatically correct sentences until you study grammar. Enroll in classes and read books and newspapers in Spanish. Most of those who complain about not speaking Spanish are trying to learn by “absorption.” That does not work. Open a business or get a job where you have to speak only Spanish – your Spanish will improve. It does not matter what your age is – I entered law school for a 5 year program at a Mexican University at 52. I graduated with honors and my Spanish was much improved. Learning a language as an adult is not easy, but hard work makes the difference. (born in the US and have lived 30 years in Mexico – I enjoy dual nationality)

    • PintorEnMexico

      Another good source for reading practice is children’s literature or comic books.

    • Güerito

      Very good comment about work (or it could be volunteering). I worked full-time in a retail store for about five years after being down here for a couple years. It’s the only way to pick up Spanish as really spoken in Mexico. You’ll learn a dozen new words or ways of saying things each week.

      Also, music was really important for me. I started listening pretty exclusively to Mexican music around 2000. I love cumbia and norteña.

      Watching the local or national news is also critical. Newscasters will enunciate very clearly, and generally speak slower than people on the street. Plus, you’ll begin to learn something about Mexican society not found in books.

      You should also read a local paper, preferably in paper form, at least twice a week. You’ll learn words from the paper you won’t hear on tv news.

      I’m not so sure I agree with the 100% speaking Spanish part, though. I think that might be unrealistic and cause frustration.

      Congrats on the law school thing!

  • Paka Clark

    I have lived in central mexico for 8 yrs. Year round. There are no english speaking people in our community. I have studied,studied and more. I remember to the next corner and then its gone. Im not a idiot i can read spanish i have good pronouncation…..for about 5min. Ijust dont retain the lanuage. My community is wonderful and we have developed our own spanglish♥