Speaking in tongues, all of them twisted

February 15, 2000|By Joanne Jacobs

I ESTUDIO espanol two mornings a week, miercoles and vendredi. By the end of 10 weeks -- diez semanas -- I will be fluent. In French.

Ma tete is set in its ways. That is, my brain knows English. It wants to speak English. It panics at the prospect of forming a sentence in a language other than English, even in the friendly atmosphere of our little four-person class.

Forced to operate in a foreign language, je parle francais. My beleaguered brain is dredging up high school French, which has lain dormant for decades.

Vendredi, par exemple, is the French word for Friday.

Whats the Spanish word? Lets see. Its in chapter 10. Got it. Viernes.

The v is pronounced like a b, though not by me. If they want me to say it like a b they should spell it like a b.

And I dont want to hear about the gh words in English, OK?

In English, I know mucho words. After years of crossword puzzle addiction, I command more English than I know what to do with.

Last week, a clue on the

cf03 New York Times

cf01 puzzle was crossword worker. It was four letters, too short to be something obvious like solver.

The answer was esne, an Anglo-Saxon peasant. Or, as the clue suggested, a worker found only in Crosswordland, where an esne might meet a peri (Persian fairy) by an adit (mine entrance) to negotiate an agio (currency exchange fee).

If I can learn obscure, useless words in Crossword English, why cant I aprender espanol?

In Spanish, yo soy estupido or possibly estoy estupido. Definitely estupido. (The Lone Rangers sidekicks name, Tonto, also translates as stupid. Whats that about?)

Spanish has two to be verbs when one would be perfectly adequate and trying to figure out which one to use is driving me loco. Or possibly loca.

But my French is coming back. In the middle of conjugating estar, when I should be using ser, I think: BAGS. I learned this acronym in ninth-grade French class. It stands for beauty, age, goodness and size, and its a way of remembering ... I forget. I think its the kind of adjectives that come before the noun instead of after. All these years Ive lived my life without thinking of BAGS, yet here it is, just when I dont need it.

Little phrases of actual Spanish clutter my head. Con permiso. Tengo fro. Hasta pronto, which a Mexican-American friend said hes never heard in his life, though its on page three of my libro.

If I ever want to say, I beg your pardon. Im cold. See you soon, it will be no problemo. Or possibly problema.

We just hired a new reporter. She speaks Spanish, Portuguese, French, Hebrew and Arabic. My mastery of English, esne included, seems inadequate.

My goal is to learn enough in the class to qualify for the conversational Spanish lunch group at work and eventually acquire enough fluency to interview people who dont know English.

It doesnt seem likely.

Its all the fault of Donna, who guilted me into signing up. She needed cuatro students to make up a class. Donna found the language school, which supplies Eva, our Spanish Spanish teacher. (Eva teaches espanol and es de espana.)

Donna is third- or fourth-generation Mexican-American. Her family holds jalapeno eating contests. But ethnic heritage conjugates no verbs. Like Patty and me, Donna took French in high school.

Patty and I had our doubts about Jane, whom we suspected of excessive aptitude for learning languages. Jane emigrated from China at the age of 17, was in college a year later and became a reporter, writing in English.

But Jane has turned out to be a good amiga, which is to say: Shes no good at Spanish either. I think she took high school French, too.

Whats frustrating is that I can read Spanish quite well, using my French. I can even understand Eva much of the time.

But if I try to communicate, I parle francais. Or I choke.

If I never pick up mucho Spanish, at least Im learning other things.

Humility. I wake up early two mornings a week so I can feel like an idiot.

Patience. When I strain to understand people who dont speak English well, I feel grateful they speak English at all.

Silence. For me, its a skill.


Joanne Jacobs is a member of the San Jose Mercury News editorial board.

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