It's all about attitude…Right?

It’s all about attitude…Right?

Welcome back to Spanish Sundays; my way of holding myself accountable to my goal of being able to carry on a conversation in Spanish by the end of the year. It is also a way to help others who might be starting a language program, by sharing tips and tricks I am learning along the way. In the end, I am starting to learn, you just have to get out there and be uncomfortable and use the words you know.

Communication Breakdown

There were 2; very humorous to Jen, very frustrating to me, conversations I endured this week. The first was at a bus stop where a lady started speaking rapid Spanish to us and through body language and picking out a word here and there, I understood her to ask what bus we were taking. My response was a staccato, “Cajon.” Her response to my response was to point to a bus stop several streets over and speak a machine gun spew of Spanish. I was able to pick out a few words, enough to get the gist that she was telling me “The Cajon bus does not come here”… Bullshit, I might not know Spanish but i do know where to catch my bus. “Use your words Greg” I encouraged myself, “Siempre”  “Aquí” and I point to our bus stop while she gives a dubious look. It’s at this point in the “conversation” that a neighbor of ours walks up and I breath a sigh of relief as it is confirmation that I am at the right place to catch my bus, as if I had any doubts. The nay sayer starts chatting up our neighbor using many of the same words used with me and points several streets over to the other bus stop. Finally, our bus arrives and our neighbor looks at Jen and I, rolls her eyes and smiles.


The second conversation was just as frustrating as the first but it was a bit less intimidating than the bus stop episode because it involved someone who we know. I was in a not unfamiliar position, prone on the couch, when Jen informs me someone was here. Shaking the cobwebs from my head and wiping the spittle from my mouth I walk to our door to see our next door neighbor standing in the doorway. Our house is like a beach house, it is built on stilts such that to get to our living quarters one has to climb stairs. This aspect of our house keeps visitors to our doorstep to a minimum. The Upe’ers rarely ascend the stairs. So, it was not just my vulnerable position but the fact that we were not expecting anyone, that startled me. Being startled is not a great mental position to be in to begin to try to understand a Spanish conversation. Yet, this was what happened.

Normally, in a Spanish conversation, I can pick up a word here and there and, along with exaggerated body language and context, I can get the gist of what is being communicated. This time around I had nothing; nada, zero, zilch. I lost count of the number of times I said “No Entiendo”(I don’t understand) but it was very many. It turns out our neighbor, who is also our landlord’s caretaker for our property, was just telling me that he had connected a water hose to our faucet to water the lawn and that he was going to leave it connected and that we could use it if we wanted to. How do I know this? A bilingual friend came by later for a visit and we asked her to ask our neighbor what the hell he was trying to tell me.

I understand there is frustration in learning a language and that language can either be the fuel to power my learning or a torpedo that sinks the language ship. I choose it to be the fuel. Being embarrassed and uncomfortable is driving me to learn so that I can effectively communicate and not be uncomfortable.  There is a distinction here that needs to be made – the frustration I have is with myself…not with the speaker, it is my responsibility to be able to speak the language of the country of which I am a guest in.

Last Weeks Goals

Last week I had several goals. Here they are and the results of my efforts.

  • Learn the A, B, C’s – Learning the A, B, C’s helps in pronunciation Spanish words. I have a pretty good grasp of the letters.
  • (Re)Learn numbers through 100 – once this is learned it is not a long stretch to learn to 1,000.  I did pretty good however, when I hear a long number I get lost – especially when it comes from a native speaker. See my goal for this week below.
  • Watch Seasame Street in Spanish – 5 episodes – I did not do this at all. Instead I downloaded some Spanish conversations from the internet and loaded them up on my iPod and listened (and repeated aloud) as I took my daily hike. It was funny the few times I spoke out loud (loader than intended because of the earbuds) as I passed a Tico – “¿Dónde está el baño?” – smile, snicker, laugh.

This Weeks Goal

I only have one goal this week. To force myself to understand and communicate numbers when making a purchase. The exchange rate in Costa Rica is, roughly, 500 colones to $1, making the conversion math easy but also making, just about any purchase, be a large number of colones. For example; 2,525 (about $5) would be, dos mil-quinientos-veinticinco, and when heard in real-time, is quite difficult to get.

There are a few number hacks I have used up till now that are keeping me from fully comprehending a long number when spoken. In the example above, all I would listen for would be the dos mil (2,000) part, and I would pull out 3 mil’s to pay with thus looking like I knew what I was doing without having to understand the hundredths and tenths positions. Another cheat, is that most places of business rely on the super-smart technology of the calculator and the cashier will show you the amount calculated on the calculator to HELP you get there faster.

This weeks goal – to not look at the calculator AND to give exact change in each transaction. I think I will be using the words “Más despacio, por favor” a whole lot.

Hasta Pronto,


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Spanish Sundays