Errr?? What did you say?

By Published On: March 16, 2005Categories: Language0 Comments on Errr?? What did you say?

I went to register for my spanish course yesterday, and after seeing the words "total immersion" several times decided it was time to go out and speak with the people of Cochabamba.

So I headed to the equivalent of ‘Speakers Corner’ in the central square, where a a speaker dressed entirely in black with over-sized sunglasses seemed to be successfully rowsing a crowd with his explanation of ‘hydrocarbon’ laws. I couldn’t quite see it happening in Hyde Park.

I lingered at the edge and then asked a neighbour about what he thought would happen at Congress when it came to the vote (due later that day) on how much royalties should be applied on gas.  Soon it was me that had drawn a crowd as lots of Bolivians surrounded me to passionately explain why the bloqueos (road blocks) were justified, how neo-liberalism lay at the heart of Bolivia’s problems, and the need for an indigenous-type of development that was different to traditional left-right politics.

At least, I think that’s what they said. Passionate tends to mean speaking fast – so I soon had this stream of words rushing past my ear. I could pick up the occasional words and sentences, but then the next few sentences would bypass me completely. It was like trying to listen to a radio, where you can only occasionally get good reception but often are trying to make out words through static.

At times, I would tune out completely.

Tuning out didn’t stop my nodding and saying "mmm" and "siii", perhaps more to assure myself I’d understood. It was at these times, that invariably people would say something like "Do you understand?"  I normally lie at these moments and say yes, just so that I don’t look like some insane puppet that nods his head for no apparent reason.

In the evening, it was my time to talk. I joined a couple of Uruguayans for a few beers. Alcohol is certainly good for encouraging you to talk but unfortunately it didn’t quite make up for my linguistic inadequacies. We had a long conversation that rambled over lots of interesting topics: identity, culture, Bolivian politics, Uruguay, Galeano, travelling.

Frequently I would launch confidently into a sentence only to get near to the end of the sentence to find I was missing a key bit of vocabulary. So I would reverse, and try another sentence to see if that came out ok. I felt like I was exploring Cochabamba’s one-way system in a car for the first time. Throughout our conversation, I would be tripping up over tenses and clauses and skidding over subjunctives.

At 11pm, I felt completely exhausted by my total immersion in Spanish. I headed to bed and dreamed (in English) that I was back in England driving a clapped out car through central London’s one-way streets with a dodgy radio for company.


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