Sunday, September 20, 2009

"Lo siento, no entiendo"

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” How I have grown to dislike those words. I’ve been living in Chiclayo since July of 2008. I had hoped to be speaking conversational Spanish by this time. I am not even close. Not speaking the language doesn’t prevent me from enjoying life in this wonderful country. There is much to see and do that doesn’t require language, and when there is the need for verbal communication in most cases my wife Maribel or her son Brian are there to translate for me. The problem is I am not independent. I am limited in what I can do, where I can go, and am prevented from taking part in casual conversation with these incredibly friendly people. There is a beautiful park in Lambayeque where the older men gather in the morning to discuss probably what older men all over the world discuss. Someday I would like to join them, but I really wonder if it’s ever going to happen.

Let me back up a bit. When I came to Peru I had what I thought was a working vocabulary of 400 Spanish words. I had also memorized some basic phrases recommended by Maribel and several guide books. I didn’t expect to hit the ground running, but didn’t expect to be at square one either. To clarify, I can speak some Spanish. At a basic level I can generally get across what I want to say. I can ask what something costs; how to get somewhere, and can order food at a restaurant. The problem is I don’t understand the response. They have to be using at least some words I’m familiar with but I never recognize them. Part of the problem is they speak rapidly but that’s not the major issue. Even if they’re speaking slowly, to me it sounds like the words are being chewed and swallowed, as if they were never intended to be heard.

Ordering food at KFC should be a snap. I have memorized in Spanish “combo No.3, original recipe, with Pepsi, no upgrade.” The price is posted so no problem there, but there is always a question or comment. She may be telling me about a special they’re offering, or saying the chicken isn’t ready or telling me my zipper is open. I keep repeating “nothing more” and if she persists I try to end it by saying “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” By the time she calls out my name indicating the order is ready – they don’t use a number system here, and they pronounce my name Tum – I don’t want the damn chicken anymore.

I admit I haven’t worked hard enough to learn the language. My defense is, what good does it do to speak the language if I can’t understand it? I am convinced it is possible to learn and even teach Spanish grammar without being able to converse in the language. I’ve learned how to conjugate verbs. When I’m talking and feel a verb coming on I’m ready to conjugate that sucker in past, present or future tense. I may be one of the greatest Spanish verb conjugaters of all time. I wonder if the cashier at KFC knows that?



  1. Tom, I feel the same with English. You need probably two years more to speak more fluently, but first try to read in Spanish. I had the same experience here in the USA, I needed to manage English in 18 months. Now I am here for 80 months and still an elementary school student speaks better that I do. The difference is that I've been studying English. Good to see you at Chiclayo KFC. The servers were trying to be kind, Chiclayo is also know as "the Capital of Friendship" in Perú.

  2. Tom: I just checked for you. In fact, "Zeta" bookstores have a branch in Chiclayo. Their website is and they show recent bestsellers in English; prices look fair for U.S. standards, though they are expensive for Peruvian readers. It appears that they also sell online, however, I would prefer going by myself.
    Following another of your posts I've checked for Kendall-Jackson wines; they are pricey for being a California wine. French wines have lower prices and they are good also. As far as I know, I see the grapes are the same that are popular in Chile and Peru: chardonay, cabernet and cabernet-sauvignon, malbec, merlot and local varieties. To have a glass of wine every other day is a good recipe for long life, ask the French and the Italians. However, Peruvians that are not connoisseurs like some sweet varieties. Enjoy the good life Tom, you are where I would like to be.