The First Day of Spanish School in Nicaragua

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Our first Spanish class in Nicaragua was…interesting. We’ll be here learning for a month in what has promised to be a pretty intense learning experience. 4 hours of instruction daily, low teacher-student ratios for extra attention. And classes start at 8 am. This is immersion.

There are five of us in the beginner class today and it’s clear that regardless of our adulthood, professional degrees, and perceived status, the full range of emotions that accompany the first day of school are on full display. Anxiety, excitement, fear, angst. Mari’s as giddy as, well, a schoolgirl. We learn introductions and typical responses, and then, about twenty minutes into our 80 hours of instruction, our teacher indicates that we should follow him on a walk into town. Field trip. Viaje de campo.

The five of us followed our teacher, trying to stay close to him in case he tried to give our walk a purpose by bridging the Spanish words to what our eyes were seeing. Instead, we walked in a drainage ditch, mostly in silence—past the burning garbage, past the blooming native flowers, past the smoking Volcano Masaya in the distance.

We ended up at the house of our teacher’s friend, who is an open, welcoming man. It was a typical Nicaraguan home made of cement blocks, the walls unpainted. We were described as Spanish students and the man proclaimed that he was also a student, trying to learn English. Our teacher translated for him, “if only there was a way for us to learn faster. Maybe I can exchange my Spanish for your English.” We responded, wanting to communicate with our host and continue this conversation (really any conversation) and so almost all in unison we replied with uncommon gusto “si!” as utilized from our earlier lesson. The conversation, despite all our best efforts, seemed to come to a lull after that.  And so there we sat in silence, looking around the room for anything we knew and could translate to start a new line of dialogue. Como se dice “nice floor tiles” en Espanol? There’s a lovely ceramic Virgin Mary statue. That’s always a solid ice breaker! If only I knew how to say “virgin” or “statue” – assuming Mary stays constant across cultures.

We were all temporarily relieved when the man wanted to share Nicaraguan culture with us through its music and played a dvd of music videos. For the next half hour, we sat there watching a Nicaraguan boy band and women dressed in bikinis shaking it. Our teacher translated the music for us for full effect, “I touch her here. I touch her there.” We dutifully looked on at our improvised curriculum and responded. “Si.”

Our next lesson, via the next video from the group Los Bandititos had our teacher employing teaching by rote. “Loco, loco, loco para vos, chica” he recited from the song. “Loco, loco, loco para vos, chica <crazy, crazy, crazy for you girl>” we repeated. “Loco, loco, loco para vos, chica.” he corrected us with the pronunciation on “CHI-CA.” We repeated.

Eventually it was time for our break, so we thanked our host for his kindness and left. He told us how happy he was to be able to open up his home to us.

As we began our walk back to the school, our teacher stopped us and said, “Please, I must ask you something, and please, don’t be offended, ok?” We responded with the tools we’ve been taught thus far—”si.” “Do you like to drink Cerveza?” he asked. It was 10 am.

I tried to reply that I do like to drink in the social sense, but that I tend to wait later in the day, but – you know: when in Rome, I’ll do as the Romans do. I tried to tell him that I didn’t wish to drink during class time, but that I believed this really was good cerveza weather and that I hoped we all could grab a round in the future. Instead, I answered “si.”

Jeff Lee
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