Cemanahuac Spanish school's outdoor classrooms in Cuernavaca are great learning environments.
Cemanahuac Spanish school's outdoor classrooms in Cuernavaca are great learning environments. Rae Wilson

A Latin Affair: APN's own grammar cop tested in Mexico

I AM not going to lie.

I had the odd tear well up in my eye as I struggled to understand a few grammatical concepts.

If you ask my team, I'm a bit of a grammar cop - okay, kinda major.

So, not being able to grasp something seemed like a big fail buzzer going off.

But my grammar teacher, at Cemanahuac Spanish school in Mexico, never gave up, always trying to find new ways to communicate something I didn't understand.

Sometimes it was drawings and dialogues, other times it was finding material Queta knew I would be interested in - Aztecs, politics, crime, the economy.

Always it was in Spanish. Even explaining complex grammar.

One of my biggest problems was dealing with dialogues using multiple people.

I am pretty okay with "I", "you" and "he/she" but throw in "first person plural" and "third person plural" and I was cactus.

Anyhoo - it's especially hard ordering the pronouns used in Spanish - reflexive, direct and indirect.

Honestly, when "she gives it to me" becomes "she to me it gives", it is difficult enough, without throwing extra people Into the mix.

Now that I am travelling with a friend, therefore using first person plural and people are replying in third person plural, it's all starting to come together.

But sitting in a classroom trying to nut it out, it seemed like an impossible hurdle.

The other tricky part of the grammar was learning subjunctive mode - something we barely use in modern English.

Spanish speakers use it when they want to express something that is not certain.

The language already has a ridiculous number irregular verb endings, the kind you can only learn through memorising them.

So learning a whole new lot of endings in the subjunctive mode is just thoroughly confusing.

And I HATE getting things wrong. So you can imagine the level of frustration that occasionally brought a little wetness to mis ojos (the blue round things on my face).

My lovely host mama/abuela took me to her friend's birthday party on my first weekend in Cuernavaca.

I felt like I'd gotten somewhere after my first five days but I sat there for four hours, drinking tequila and eating ceviche, wondering if I knew any Spanish at all.

I got the key topics and plenty of words, but barely a full sentence was comprehended in the celebrating of that birthday on my part.

I felt like I was back to square one and that I needed a lot more work to cross any lines.

I dedicated myself to the two hours of grammar and two hours of conversation classes each day.

I spent 3-4 hours every night doing homework exercises.

The next weekend, my hotel in Mexico City did not have my reservation and I had to communicate entirely in Spanish to solve the problem.

The senora clearly understood everything I said, so I was chuffed I could express myself sufficiently and sort out the problem.

But, as always, when people try to talk back to me, I'm like "huh"?!

It's usually easier to understand women, who seem to a annunciate better and arguably speak slower, than it is to understand blokes.

The Mexican men either continue to say the same thing at the same rapid pace or give their limited English a crack as soon as I don't respond immediately.

Sometimes I'm processing what they said and sometimes I'm thinking of an answer but they lack patience with this slow gringo.

Talking at the same pace back at me isn't helpful, hombres.

After three weeks of speaking Spanish four hours a day at school and then talking to my host family at meal times, I definitely felt I had improved immensely since my arrival in Cuernavaca.

My teacher even played a recording back to me to prove I had improved and that my listening comprehension was much better.

Queta told me I was a clever student, someone who just went with the language instead of constantly questioning it.

She said she often saw a light go on, though sometimes dimly, as I grasped new concepts in the outdoor classrooms at Cemanhauc.

Plenty of students just sat their blankly for the things I was learning and did not take responsibility for their own learning.

"Practise, practise, practise" was her key message.

And don't get me wrong, I was having amazing conversations with her and some other teachers about some complex world issues across our countries - entirely in Spanish.

So I know I was doing all right but understanding people in the real world was a whole other thing.

Though I still cannot have the in-depth conversations I had hoped with people I meet travelling, I am comfortable with my progress.

None more so than two days ago when I took a risk with about $A100.

My friend and I were heading into the jungle to see Mayan ruins only accessible using a super skinny long-tail boat.

We needed overnight bus tickets for that night to get from Palenque to Merida for accommodation we had booked.

The bus driver said, all in Spanish, that we could not duck by the bus station.

I explained the bus was filling up and I was worried about not having seats.

After initially dismissing me, he called over his friend who said he could buy them for us.

I handed over our hard-earned pesos - asked for seats 3 and 4 on the 9pm overnight bus to Merida.

Though a little nervous, 14 hours later on our return from the jungle - our tickets awaited.

Right seats, right bus, huge sigh of relief that my language skills prevailed.

Eight hours on a bus that overtakes trucks and other buses in the middle of the night - now that's another story.



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