When we moved to Mexico neither Jay or I had much experience with the Spanish language (beyond my teenage crush on Enrique Iglesias). We only knew a few basic words and very little about the language structure. However, coming from Canada, we both knew a reasonable amount about French. As we began to learn Spanish we realized that both languages had a lot of similarities: they are both romance languages, they both use two grammatical genders, and they share a fair number of words (75% lexical similarity). In fact, due to Latin roots and borrowed vocabulary, we found that most words in Spanish shared similarities with either English or French.
So, we kept at it and worked hard and our Spanish started improving. After a few months I got up the guts to try out my new skills while ordering coffee. I promised myself that I would not default into English- and I didn’t. I managed to order my coffee and answer questions about cream and sugar without too much trouble. I was on a role. I guess I let my new found confidence get to me and I stopped thinking. The very last thing to come out of my mouth: s’il vous plaît . The cashier looked at me like I was an alien. So close.
As embarrassing as that was, it wasn’t as bad as the experience we had on our second trip to Mexico. For a while we had been telling our friends that because we knew some French, we were having an easier time learning Spanish. It was a source of pride for us. Perhaps it was because it identified us as Canadian, or maybe because it made us look a little less incompetent as we struggled with Spanish. This was fine for a while as hardly anyone in Cancun speaks French. We used our knowledge of the language to help us figure out words and understand grammatical nuances, but we never actually had to speak it. One day we decided to visit our friend Adrian who lives in the hotel zone in a condo development that also functions as a hotel. When we arrived we were introduced to his newest friend a guy from France who spoke no English or Spanish. “Speak to him in French,” we were urged. Oh. Remembering words and grammatical rules is a lot different than actually speaking the language, which neither one of us had done in years. We tried to speak and nothing came out. ¿Cómo estás? Nope, that’s Spanish. ¿Cómo te llamas? Nope, Spanish again. We looked at each other. Where were all of our French words? We had been so immersed in Spanish for so long that between the two of us we couldn’t put together even the most basic of French sentences. It was pretty embarrassing. Of course later that day, after the French guy had left, it came flooding back to us. Isn’t that convenient?