I loved to ski, until after an incident that resulted in my having to get several vertebrae in my neck fused, resulted in my neurosurgeon saying, “No more skiing.” There also was a time when I was addicted to lobster and steamer clams, until I developed an allergy that causes my throat to swell shut. Again, the good doctors said, “No more.” So, folks, if before I degenerate into a total vegetable, if I decide to voluntarily shuffle off this mortal coil, I’m going to Vail, have the biggest lobster I can find, and go careening down a black diamond slope into eternity. Just so you know.
But here’s the connection to learning Spanish. I had a ski instructor friend in seminary who “taught” me to ski. “Taught” in the sense of “Let’s go!” And so I did, but I never learned the basics. We were having fun and he wasn’t “working” so I never learned things step by step. I was skiing down some pretty good trails without ever having mastered the basic “snowplow.” The same thing has happened with my Spanish “skills” [maybe “kills” is more descriptive!] in Panama. I’ve never taken the time to learn the basics and so in my attempts to communicate I do, in fact, kill the language.
So, after over ten years in Panama, I’m about to “do it right” and go to Habla Ya, Panama’s famed Spanish language school based in Boquete, and with branches in Bocas and Panama City. I’ve promised to write about my experience, and hopefully progress in learning, really learning, how to speak Spanish.
So I stopped at Habla Ya in Boquete. Chatted with a helpful gal, in English, who explained that for Habla Ya to know where to start, I needed to take both a written and oral exam. OK, the written part was about 3 pages, and I pretty much whipped through the first two pages in English and Spanish, the third page was all verbs, declensions, and tenses, where I am completely lost. In our Spanish interview it became quickly apparent that while I may know some vocabulary, I have no idea how to put the words together properly.
So … my classes start tomorrow, Monday. Supposedly at 8 am, two hours a day, three days a week. This should prove interesting because next week is Holy Week and nothing happens in Panama during holy week. It will be interesting if my teacher even shows up tomorrow … and a class, or anything!!, on Good Friday … forget it. Pretty much the entire country will be at … no, not church … the beach! So, we shall see and I will report.
So why the fear and trepidation?
First, I don’t know the “language” … not Spanish, or English … the language of grammar. I have an AB, MDiv, MBA, PhD, have been a public speaker of one kind or another all my career, and have written a number of books. People say I’m a good communicator. But when I was in school the approach to learning English was that you write or speak “so it sounds right.” I kid you not! So I have no idea what the definitions or grammatical terms are in English, let alone Spanish. That thing on the left, is my cheat sheet I downloaded so I can learn the definitions of grammatical terms. I have no idea what a Past Perfect Progressive tense is, but I HAVE learned that if you want people to listen to what you say and read what you write you KISS … keep it simple stupid! … which means avoiding Present and Perfect tenses whatever they are.
I’ve “taken” Latin, Spanish, French, Biblical Hebrew and Greek, managed to pass the courses, but I don’t know a thing. Hebrew was required in seminary. Were I Roman Catholic and the Pope I guess I could claim a miracle. I was flunking Hebrew. In order to pass the course, and end up with a low “C”, I aced the final exam. Aced it! Clearly a miracle if there ever was one, better than some Neapolitan saint’s crusted blood liquefying
[Holy Father Francis, if you go along with that one you’ll slide down on my respect scale. This is just too “made for TV”, “reality television” to be taken seriously. This kind of stuff may have flown in the middle ages, ala “Pillars of The Earth,” but really!
How did I bring off this “miracle” which stunned my Hebrew professor? Porn. I just associated every Hebrew word with the most graphic sex acts I could imagine, given my conservative upbringing and seminary background, but it worked! And honestly, in 35 years in the ministry, nobody has ever … not once! … asked me anything vaguely related to Hebrew. But, yes, a few have asked about the porn.
Traveling the world, working with folks on ships from 35 countries, and living in a Spanish-speaking country, has helped me appreciate the need to communicate and although I have this hang-up fear and the idea that I just don’t do well learning languages, I’m going to try.
Folks talk about “immersion” … well I’ve been immersed for ten years! Which worries me a bit. My wife has taken the Habla Ya “locals” course before, and is taking another session now. My fear is that Habla Ya goes overboard on grammar without focusing on communication. They talk about “immersion” but … my wife tells me that her teacher says some of our bad habits are because we talk with Indigenous people who don’t speak Spanish well. Really! I’ll bet almost half the population of this area ARE Indigenous. Maybe it’s only “immersion” with Latino, i.e. non-Indigenous? We’ll see. The problem with teaching English to Panamanians is that the Panamanian English teachers tend to overly focus on grammar and not communication. I’m not interested in writing a thesis in Spanish, but in communicating with my friends, workers, neighbors, and people with whom I do business.
So we shall see how this all works out. I’m hoping for the best and busy studying English grammatical terms. And I will duly report on my Habla Ya experience.