Que paso, amigos?
by John Pearson
Yo hablo espanol! Well, a little bit, anyway. Since a large percentage of my students (and the whole district, for that matter) are of Hispanic ethnicity, it makes sense that I would need to know a little Spanish.
In grade school, I had Spanish class every day, and some of that tutelage has remained with me always. I remember articles of clothing, a few food items, several animals, and various body parts. And of course I have total recall of all of the curse words that I learned from Raul the exchange student in eighth grade.
I've always been good with the numbers in Spanish, as well. I’ve had kids in my class a few times that speak little to no English, and I can walk them through simple math in their own language. "Escribe diez y ocho menus seis aqui, por favor" – "Write 18 minus 6 here, please" – simple stuff like that. Often, when the other kids in the room hear the non-English rolling off my tongue, they stop and stare in amazement. Their looks of wonder seem to say, "Verily, is there anything this man cannot do?"
Yet other times, my bilingualism brings giggles. Kids ask me to say words and phrases in Spanish, then when I repeat them, they laugh like they're witnessing a novelty act. “What's so funny? I said muchacho just like you did!”
Apparently, I will never be able to pronounce words in Spanish the way a native-speaker would. One year, a group of my girls asked me, "Tiene ninos?" which means, "Do you have any kids?" I replied, "No, yo no tengo esposa,” which I THOUGHT meant, "No, I don't have a wife."
The girls almost fell on the floor laughing. "You don't have a beard?!?" they cried. I asked them how you say "wife," and they said, "Es-POS-a!"
You say potato, I say tapopo, evidently.
Unfortunately, my rudimentary, elementary school knowledge of the Spanish language has not helped much over the years with parents who don't speak any English. They generally want a few more details than can be offered with a simple phrase like, "Diego no es bueno.”
I decided last year that I would enroll in a Spanish as a Second Language class that my church was offering. I may never be fully fluent, but I thought I could at least improve my pronunciation and follow the gist of a conversation with some of the parents and kids at my school.
The class did help a lot, especially with vocabulary. My problem now is the speed of a conversation. I can read Spanish pretty well on paper, figuring out what's being said. In print, I can see the individual words, and I can translate a lot of it. However, listening to someone speak is completely different. It's often so fast that I can't make out the words, and I get lost.
Perhaps the next time I need to conference with a Spanish-speaking parent, I should insist that they write down their questions and concerns. Then I might not even need a translator. I think I will probably still avoid using the word "esposa” in conversation, though.
John Pearson is a third-grade math and science teacher in Dallas, Texas. He has degrees in mechanical engineering from Duke University and Texas A&M, so most consider his math abilities adequate enough to teach nine-year olds. He is also the author of Learn Me Good (Lulu, 2006), a funny, fictionalized account of his first year in education. Read more at www.learnmegood.com