The Art of Language

We have a 23 month old daughter who is in a stage of extreme language development. She can say many words/phrases in both English and Spanish and is learning more every day. As with any toddler, her comprehension of both languages is more advanced than her verbal skills and she gets really frustrated when she can't express what she wants or needs. I came to the realization the other day that I understand completely what she's going through. I feel the exact same way about speaking Spanish and want to throw a tantrum sometimes, too.

In fact, our daughter's comprehension of Spanish is probably better than mine. She learns so much at the jardín that she can follow all the instruction in Spanish and is learning more about Uruguayan culture daily. Just the other day, much to our surprise, she pointed to a honey-pot on her Winnie the Pooh-themed toothbrush and said "Mate!" (the preferred beverage of many Uruguayos that is drunk from a gourd cup). As you know, we're avid coffee drinkers, so Mate knowledge doesn't come from home. (Mate gourd photo from

I studied a little Spanish briefly 10 years ago in college, but haven't used it since. While I have learned a lot being in Uruguay for the last nine months, it's been extremely helpful to work with a private Spanish tutor. It is invaluable to have private instruction for questions and very specific cultural information. We go over all the important details in a new language: How to describe what you want for a haircut, asking how to use a product at a store, why you pronounce the "J" in pajama here...  All the details that you can't learn online or in most Spanish textbooks. We are using a text called "Macanudo" which is strictly the Rio Platense dialect of Argentina and Uruguay.

My tutor was born and educated in Uruguay and lived in London for 12 years, she teaches both English and Spanish here. She is very inexpensive by US standards for private instruction- $1000 pesos/month for weekly 1.5 hour classes (about $8.50 USD per hour).

There are so many frustrating moments in learning a language by immersion, though. It hasn't happened often, but last week I had an experience where I was not understanding what a person at the doctor's office was saying. I had just gotten done speaking with an angel of a woman and had came back to the counter to verify one final question. The second woman I spoke with was completely unintelligible to me and kept speaking louder and louder, saying the same phrase, just at a higher volume. Then she started muttering under their breath and rolling their eyes shortly thereafter when I still didn't understand. It was a sad reminder of the many ugly Americans that I have seen do the exact same thing to foreigners. Note to self: avoid that person when visiting the clinic next time and have a few choice words prepared just in case ;)

While language skills are so natural for a 2-year-old, it's incredible how difficult it can be for an adult. I had anticipated that my Spanish would have progressed more than it has within 8 months. I'm still waiting for the moment when it all "clicks" and it becomes easier. That moment will come, right?

Language... Oh the Challenges!

Learning a language while in a foreign land is a great way to do it because you're immersed but extremely frustrating because you're immersed. It is baptism by fire, being thrown to the wolves, complete trial and error.   I ventured off today with the baby to visit the dogs at the house where they are being boarded.  Not a big deal.  I knew where they were and how to get there.  I had a few basic questions in mind that I needed to know: 'Do they have enough food to last one more week?'  and 'Have they gotten the flea/tick treatment?' Both of these are pretty easy questions but to a person who doesn't know much Spanish (Me) and another person who knows even less English (the lady who boards the dogs), the whole exchange was a challenge.  She ended up grabbing her daughter's Spanish/English dictionary which helped immensely for a few key words.  "How did Pablo get the scar on his leg?" I told her that he had surgery to remove a lump. "When will you be picking them up?" Next week Tuesday or Wednesday. "Where is the new house you're renting?", etc.  The visit ended after about a half hour and I was proud of the things that we were able to communicate.  We both tried really hard and had to resort to miming at points, but we got the point across.  Oh Marcel Marceau would be so proud!!


On the walk home, I was hungry so I stopped by a panadería (bakery) to get something to snack on when I got back to the aparthotel.  It was late in the day but I hoped that they would still have some empanadas (meat or cheese filled pastries).  The veggie options are sometimes hard to find but necessary for my vegetarian husband.  I pushed the stroller in and took a look in the display cases.  One Cheese/Onion and one Cheese/Olive Empanada left.  Perfect!  I started by asking the lady for "Empanadas, por favor" and it all went down hill from there.  She started asking me how many I want total (in order to get the right sized bag to put them in) and I thought she was talking about how many I want of each kind.  We stood there for a moment, not knowing what to say because neither of us was being understood.  I eventually understood what she was asking and told her I needed 4 total, then proceeded to place my order.   We got them bagged and she passed them to the check-out lady who asked for "Ochenta Pesos".   I know that means 80,  I had exact change and handed it to the lady.  She counted it out onto the counter and told me "Ochenta pesos" again along with a string of other words that I didn't understand.  After a moment of talking to me, they ended up saying it's all good (in Spanish) and handing me my bag.  I was so confused because I thought she was asking for more money, but I think she was just counting it and saying that I had exact change and to take my empanadas.  I HOPE that's what it was! How a simple exchange can be so confusing!! 

That's the way to learn, though.  As much as it's painful and I want to avoid those uncomfortable situations, I also want to be immersed in the culture and have real experiences with the Uruguayan people.  Through my whole day and those interactions, I think there were only two words in English!   I'll be happy when I can start my Spanish lessons as I'm sure my language skills will progress quickly.  One can hope!

"Mi Amor"

Our Daughter is being exposed to so much Spanish love and affection by people that you would never anticipate in the USA.... EVERYONE!!!   Waiters and waitresses, delivery people and perfect strangers on the street coo and wave and talk to her like she's their own daughter or granddaughter.  It's amazing.  We encountered the same thing when we were here last year, but I figured it was because she was