Outside magazine, February 1996
Recently, I attended a two-week Spanish course at Conversa, an intensive language school located a few miles outside San José, Costa Rica. For eight days I conjugated verbs until I got finger bloat. For eight days I stared out a gloomy classroom window, trying to train my tongue to make foreign sounds. For eight days I sat meekly in my seat, feeling dumb as tire tracks, until I enjoyed a sudden awakening regarding my own limits. I used to think I was too stupid to learn another language. Now I'm smart enough to know better. The reason I can't speak a second tongue is that I'm just too American.
It's true. All our qualities of greatness are balanced by the unfortunate reality that, except for a few lucky recent immigrants, Americans are a multilanguageless people. It's not our fault. Over the centuries, the chunk of the American brain that controls foreign speech has gradually withered to the size of a muscat grape in autumn.
There are several popular theories to explain this: bad vibes still lingering from that idiotic Louisiana Purchase; the mass inhalation of flax during the Industrial Revolution; Prohibition; nuclear testing; acid rain; those bastard aliens who, even though the government refuses to admit it, are beaming us up a piece at a time and then reassembling us, Tinker Toy fashion.
But I'm getting off track. The point is, most of us don't possess the circuitry to learn a foreign language. (The few Americans who do claim to be bilingual are probably just lying. How would we know?) Does that mean we're doomed to spending our travels communicating in a grotesque pantomime?
Nope. Not any more.
At the Conversa school in Costa Rica, I finally realized that as an American, I had to attack Spanish with the same spartan two-point philosophy I apply to packing for a trip: (1) Survival isn't surviving unless it's fun. (2) Take only what you need to survive.
After that, I was OK. I left the school, of course, and spent the remainder of my time traveling around Costa Rica, hiking the rainforests, dodging that country's noxious transit police, all the while compiling a list of Spanish phrases that we, the linguistically challenged, need to survive. During quiet evenings, I also drew on past experiences in places such as Nicaragua, Panama, and Cuba to add important phrases.
Was my decision to bolt Conversa a condemnation of all language schools? Not in the least. If you're serious about mastering a language, submersion is unquestionably the most efficient way to learn.
But is it imperative to take intensive language courses prior to roaming around Latin America? Not if you read the rest of this column, it's not.
What follows is perhaps the first genuinely practical guide to traveler's Spanish ever published. Let's be honest here. Those ludicrous language primers available in bookstores are worthless. Worse, if we were to speak the inanities they teach, the locals would be well within their rights to slap us goofy.
"Will Hortensia watch television at her home on Wednesday?" Gad! What kind of boob would ask such a question? Since we don't know Hortensia, where and when she watches television is none of our concern. And if we did know Hortensia, we probably wouldn't admit it.
"Orlando is wearing new pants." Do you wonder why travelers sometimes die unexpectedly while touring Latin America? It is my suspicion that many of those deaths are directly related to fatuous non sequiturs such as this, most of them parroted from language primers. Avoid such books at all cost. Not only are they useless, they're dangerous.
The Out There School of Survival Spanish, however, is both safe and effective. There's no need to learn the stock phrase "I don't speak Spanish," because Latin Americans will automatically know that you don't speak Spanish from the vacuous glow of your eyes. Give these people some credit.
Something else you don't need to worry about is conjugating verbs. It's been my experience that Latin Americans are first-rate cryptologists. Don't be afraid to grab a verb and shoot from the hip.
Same with nouns and adjectives, which for no good reason that I know of indicate gender. But think about it: The person to whom you're speaking already knows whether he is a man or a woman. And it probably won't take him very long to figure out whether you are a man or a woman.
Because the countries of Central and South America suffer the same problems with con men and crime as the United States, I've included the kind of hardscrabble language you may need (or hear) in a tight spot. Always keep in mind that if you say something in Spanish, there's a real possibility that you will be answered in Spanish. So stay on your toes.
Speaking to Airport Taxi Drivers
Let us negotiate a price before you take my luggage.
Your uncle's hotel sounds very nice, but I have reservations at the Holiday Inn.
Please slow down.
At high speeds, I get carsick.
This window doesn't work. May I break it?
Mother of God, pigs!
Yes, the crazy animal deserved to die. But must he ride beside me?
I will change the tire, but don't expect a tip.
At the Hotel Desk
I would like a better room.
Please explain the rope's function.
I would like any room not damaged during the recent earthquake.
The river is lovely, but I prefer a room with a shower.
Don't lie to me. I know the difference between a piranha and a carp.
At Local Markets
Your currency is very pretty. Who's the guy with the top hat?
No chicken hearts today, madam. Do you sell peanut butter?
The people of Taiwan are excellent craftsmen!
No, thanks. The sombrero impairs my vision.
Will you throw in a couple of mangos?
A Night on the Town
The rum is good, but I prefer the local beer.
The local women do what to cause fermentation?
Keep those brewskies coming!
I don't question your abilities, but I am already married.
My apologies. I thought you asked me to dance.
My friend is drunk, and I am lost.
My friend is lost, and I am drunk.
At the Hospital
Relax! That is not gunfire; that is my stomach.
Everything was working fine when I left Miami.
If I break the pill in two, may I take it orally?
I prefer to believe that I was infected by a mosquito.
Damn your oath! I've got things inside me that need to be killed!
I was never asked to do that in the United States, and I am not going to do it here.
If you've got the medicine, I've got the cash.
In a Fix with Guerrillas, Thugs, or the Costa Rican Transit Police
May I offer you a gift of money?
I love your uniform!
Your automatic weapons are so clean!
Did I say American? I meant Canadian.
Once again, those French bastards in Quebec have screwed up!
You can have our women, but leave the plane tickets.
Don't shoot! We are rock stars!
Over the River and into the Woods
Sharks ate most of the crocodiles? That's very reassuring.
I would like to rent a gun.
The rainforest is beautiful.
What is the name of that bird?
What is the name of that snake?
A hamburger for me, and some antivenin for my friend.
At Border Crossings/at Customs/in Jail
Yes, I have a receipt.
I have a prescription for that. Really!
Did I say $20? I meant $50!
I have a powerful friend at the American embassy.
Assassinated? Then my work is done here. The capitalist pig deserved to die.
Nice jail you got. Better than my hotel room.
Copyright 1996, Outside magazine