This is the fifth post in a series on studying Spanish in Mexico that starts here.

Zoe managed to get her footing over the course of the week but she couldn’t wait to get home. She was from Salinas, California. Her mother was from Spain, her father was Portuguese, and they had chosen to not expose her to either of their native tongues. They wanted her to be American.

“It’s funny what people think an ‘American’ is”, I said.

“And I’m a social worker, in California!” She laughed at the absurdity. “All my clients speak Spanish. They start speaking Spanish to me because they assume I speak it. Then when they realize I don’t, they have their kids interpret. All they have to do, if they want to hide anything from me, is to speak Spanish—right in front of my face.” It was clearly humiliating for her.

The next morning Zoe put her hair in a ponytail and after a breakfast of tortillas and beans with white crumbly cheese and pastries we ventured out to the street, caught the combi, and found our way to the school.

Mine was the Spanish for Dummies class. It wasn’t called that, of course. The school’s philosophy was pure immersion. The instructor spoke in Spanish and had us repeat after her. There were lots of written handouts with kindergartenish illustrations which helped. If she explained any rules of grammar or defined any words, that was lost on me.

This was a great learning method for me because I over think things. If there had been any opportunity to discuss things in English, I would have spent half the class asking questions about sentence construction and verb conjugation. That would have been fascinating and I would have gained a lot on an intellectual level but I wouldn’t have learned how to ask for a bottle of milk in a store.

Immersion is amazing—it works, and it works fast. I attended classes five hours a day and spent hours on my homework in the evening. Zoe and I spoke English together occasionally but we were on different schedules so it didn’t interfere with our learning.

The only other time I heard English was as I left the school each evening. Cemanahuac has English classes for Mexican business professionals in the evenings, taught by a young English woman. I could hear them chanting, “My name is Richard. I am a solicitor. I go to the cinema at the week-end.” Funny that they were learning British English, I thought. But maybe having an English accent would give them a leg up if they wanted to work in the U.S. We’re so dazzled by English accents.

On Day Four I passed an important milestone. I was able to walk into a store after school and ask for a six-pack of beer. I had read that women in Mexico don’t drink, but that American women weren’t really considered women, so it was okay for us. Yay! I bought a six-pack of Negra Modelo, sat in the garden by the pool, and had a couple brewskis while I did my homework.

On my last day I was able to ask my teacher what English sounded like to her. I could now understand about 70 percent of what she and Mirta said. Of course they talked very slowly and clearly and didn’t use big words. But when I arrived, Spanish had only sounded like a babbling brook, lifting, and dropping, and splashing like watery music.

“Zshuh zshah zshuh sha sha,” was her musical interpretation of English. It wasn’t nearly as bouncy as Spanish and sounded suspiciously like Russian. I did my version of how Spanish sounded to me and we laughed.

I was in love—with Mexico, sunshine and warmth, my teacher, the birds of paradise, Spanish, Negra Modelo, Mirta, and most of all, feeling good about myself for beginning to master a new language at 40.

I had been fired from my job and was about to start graduate school. I would have a part time grad assistantship with totally flexible hours. Before I left Cuernavaca I signed up to return for three more weeks.

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