19 November 2010

Losing My Axcent-O

Left: Marcela & Right: Me
by Carrie Bailey

"B?" My professor said, stunned out of her mente that I had not only passed the course, but gotten an "above average" when she added up the points. And so, my college transcript would forever misrepresent my mastery of Espanol

"Oh, why you're biligual!!' a middle aged woman on a country school board cried when we glanced over my resume together a few months later. I had probably spoken aloud less than ten words during my two years of study as a result of my blind, mind numbing fear of sounding  supremely estupida  But fully confident in my language skills, the lady immediately signed me up to teach Spanish courses to preschoolers and fill in as an ESL instructor.
It was a commonly made error by those who were unfamiliar with a Metis and Jewish ethnic mixture (yes, I think that's everyone), because in fact, I look like a Latina. Even all the migrant farm workers newly hired at the taco stand agreed,

"Para llevar?" they asked.
"No, I'd like it for here, please," I said.

"Oye! Ella  no quiere hablar Espanol!" I grabbed the food and ran back to the school where I pushed the button on the video my Spanish students would be watching for the next half hour and ate my tacos.

I was neither a fraud nor a great deceiver, but merely a nervous wreck whenever I tried to use my foreign words. I did not live up to peoples' expectations and had everything in common with the uncoordinated six foot tall fifth grader recently drafted unto school's basketball team. Though, that young man preferred scribbling with gel pens to dribbling around the court, I truly wished to speak Espanol. I drempt in Spanish. I wrote in Spanish. Yet I nearly passed out cold whenever I had to say, "hola."

And so that was the year when I made a most life changing decision and applied to teach English in the South American city of Santiago in Chile during the summer of 2008. It would be speak or starve and as a widow, my young son would be coming with me, so starve was not an option. Naturally, for the first week, I didn't bother going any farther than the kiosk on the corner. And when I did I pointed at the biscuits. There were six million personas near the beautiful Andes mountains. Did I mention I had grown up in a town of ...80?

I have my reasons though for only grunting at the food I wanted to eat then. Certainly, the concept of cross streets was overwhelming and the smog made my throat sore... sorry, I have excuses. But eventually, I found myself obligated to meet a friend  of a friend in the commune of Los Condes. Her name was Marcela. She, like many of the Chileans, was too too happy to practice her English and we became instant amigas.

It was a month of confusion and a new apartment, before another friend of a friend, Marcelo, took me for cafe and feeling valiente, I asked him:

"Como esta mi axcent-o?"

"You mean your asssssssento?" Always kind and generous, he taught me what they called modismos, the regional slang. Cachi means "do you get it" more or less. I immediately asked the waiter for a coffee and followed my request with my new vocabulary. Then, Marcelo explained the vulgar connotation of the word. 

The worst was over in the one short exchange and from then on, I lived and breathed Spanish. I watched language lessons about giant green fuzzy aliens, I studied menus, signs, and talked at great length about coffee. I broke out the big guns and started visiting language learning sites online. Then the day came when Marcela's mother asked about Rene Decartes' dualism, over cards. It was a philosophical topic, and I a nerd, thoroughly passionate about the subject,  explained. It was the first time I forgot that I was not speaking my language.

At the university, where I worked, my students would blurt out incoherent statements confident that their professora would judge them on their intent. In fact, I was so accepting that we said things no one could possibly recognize as either English or Spanish for six months straight. And laughed a lot. I would tell them absurd stories about smuggling dogs from the streets into the ninth story of my edificio past the consierge, with the 70lbs of perro tucked under my jacket and they performed skits about proctologists.
There was even a day when an administrator visited the classroom and all  twenty eight students in my morning class claimed to be the professora. And not believing me when I said I was the instructor, the woman turned in her heels and marched out to file a complaint.
On weeknights I would prepare lessons based on the parts of speech, and all week I would deliver them. I discovered that great instruction depended on a firm understanding of grammar. On the weekends, I went dancing and somewhere in the middle of the confusion, the humiliation,  the pronouns, interjections, and the new friendships I learned that speaking another language was about communication. Some people will not understand you no matter what language you speak, but others will know your meaning before you do. Obvio? Posible.

Before I returned to the states, I gave an oral exam to a very shy, very kind, and somewhat awkward student who was scheduled to graduate that term. He received a "B." The tall beanstock-ish young man thanked me over and over and brought a necklace as a parting gift and said he could never have passed without me. He expressed the belief, too, that he would never have progressed onto his career if had had any other instructor. Unaware of his own ability, he had earned the grade on his own,. But I could not convince him that students don't get marked down for being nervous, even though it feels that way at times. 

These days, my son and I practice our Spanish banter at home in Oregon-we now live in the city-and pretty much feel we can accomplish anything. We love to travel and are preparing a return to the Southern hemisphere for my graduate study in Wellington, New Zealand, which begins in February of next year.

Can you spot the American English Instructor?

Carrie Bailey has written this post to enter a language related contest:



  1. Muy bien. lol What an adventure you had. I bet you changed some lives,too.

  2. Awwwww! You've lived so much life. How do you say hummus in the Espanol?

  3. I don't know, but I swore to Marcela that I would make her hummus someday because I lived on it there. So, I have to go back...

  4. Thanks for sharing your total immersion experience. As with your shy student, I think it's interesting how the people around us often see us much differently than we see ourselves.

  5. Agreed. I always imagine myself to be quite tall, but most people are aware that I am the opposite and so it is with many things...

  6. I like to think in a language that I've become too self-conscious to speak aloud. Does that count? :D And I found this entry delightful!

  7. Ah thanks BC, I think it does count. Something about writing though has really helped me get past the sting of humiliation and rejection.

  8. Carrie's writing improved after her year of Spanish immersion! It's true that studying another language makes you understand your own a lot better. And it doesn't end when you come home; the need to explain to incredulous friends and relatives what people do there and what you think you were eating lasts forever. Carrie still tells me about Chilean coffee :)