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Spanish with a Bolivian accent

Determined not to let the traumas of French O-level put her off, Sue Wheat decided to tackle Spanish in La Paz
Having been told by my O-level French teacher that I was the worst pupil he'd ever had, I have never had much faith in my linguistic ability. A couple of decades later, I decided to have another go.

Spanish seemed the perfect option. First, it wasn't French. Second, Spain is a beautiful country and close enough to Britain for me to visit every so often. Third, as it is one of the most commonly spoken languages in the world, it seemed a sensible choice for so much effort - especially as I hadn't yet visited any of the countries in which it is spoken. I chose Bolivia.

Fortunately, Bolivians speak Spanish very precisely, which is obviously a bonus for beginners. It's also a fascinating place and comparatively cheap (once you have got there). But as it is not most people's first choice for a Spanish course, you have to think laterally about how to get a teacher. I found mine through a friend of a friend who lived in La Paz. She knew Bolivian teachers who taught English in the Pan-American language school to upwardly mobile Bolivians. One of them was happy to teach me for three hours a day at $7 an hour. This compares with around $15 an hour if you learn in Spain or $12 in Guatemala (a more established destination for Spanish classes). It does, however, mean that teaching resources are few and far between.

Irene, my teacher, had just a piece of chalk and a determined personality. She spoke English well, but knew that if I was to learn anything, she should not lapse into it. I arrived and she welcomed me with "Hola, como estas?" and I realised that I didn't even know how to respond to "hello". "Estas bien?" she continued, and although I knew she was asking me how I was, I was dumbstruck. French, German, even Thai (a language I had learnt the basics of while travelling) came flooding back ("Oui", "Ja", "Ka"), but the Spanish "Si" evaded me. "Yes," I faltered in English, "thank you, I'm fine."

We continued in this double-language fashion for three hours. Her talking to me in Spanish about anything and everything, me working out the meaning through its similarity to French, English or just pure guesswork, and her confirming in Spanish whether I was right. We were in foreign-language free-fall - it was both amusing and a little scary.

How on earth was I going to learn? I took out my travel album of family photos and decided to impose some structure on my education. I learnt how to say "this is my grandma at my brother's wedding" and "my godson's name is Edward". I started to feel a little better.

After the first hour and a half, we left the classroom and went out into La Paz. On the street, Irene chattered constantly and I fell back into turmoil. Suddenly, knowing how to explain my family tree in Spanish was worse than useless. We walked over to a stall selling orange juice, "jugo de naranja" (very useful in a country where you're constantly battling against dehydration), and I listened as Irene ordered the drinks and then practised it myself. We crossed the busy streets and she talked to me as we went. From her expression and gesticulations I vaguely understood: "up here", "be careful with your bag", "this is the post office", "this is the main square"; and questions: "do you like this?", "shall we go in here?". How on earth did she expect me to respond?

Sensing my tiredness, she introduced me to saltenas, a juicy snack of chicken and vegetables baked in what looks like a Cornish pasty, explaining it was a Bolivian mid-morning ritual. And finally, she took me to my bus stop, and told me how to ask for help getting off. "Asta luego," she shouted after me, and I smiled. I had finally understood something.

The next day I went to class armed with a small exercise book that I was to clutch constantly for the next five weeks. As I couldn't imagine how throwing so much language at me over the next week was ever going to work, and I had stupidly come to a country where practically no one speaks English without a phrase book or dictionary, I made my own vocabulary book. Dividing the pages into "family & people", "directions", "food", "verbs" and "general vocab", I felt worryingly satisfied.

Over the next four days I met Irene every morning. We had an hour's lesson where I asked her to translate useful phrases. "Como se dice este en Castelliano?" (how do you say this in Spanish?) was perhaps the most helpful, closely followed by "tiene cambio?" (do you have change?) - essential in Bolivia as small notes are always preferred. "Puedo tomar un foto?" (can I take a photo?) was also important as Bolivians are very reserved. (The answer was often "no".) And my haggling technique was transformed when instead of improvising with "esta caro!" (that's expensive!), I learnt the much more polite and vastly more effective "por cuanto me lo deba?" (what price can you give it me for?).

But it was our two hours in the city which were the best. My vocabulary and understanding increased rapidly. When we got stuck in traffic I learnt about the regular street protests over the never-ending gas shortages. On another day we walked through the markets and Irene explained how the campesinos (farmers) selling their vegetables were suffering badly because of the poor harvests after El Nino. And in the lead-up to the religious festival Todos Santos (All Saints' Day) we visited the city cemetery and watched as families thronged around the tombs, preparing altars of food for loved ones who'd passed away that year, and paying the poor to sing at the graves. By the end of the week, Irene's scatter-gun technique had somehow worked. Spanish had started coming out of my mouth that people seemed to understand.

Irene and I bade each other a fond farewell. As a teacher, she'd been patient, fun and diligent. But she'd also been a wonderful cultural translator, explaining what was going on in people's lives. I did have difficulty ordering breakfast when I set off on my own (a term we'd never needed to learn), but I was pleased to be able to chat with campesinos about droughts, livestock, and their families. I wouldn't pass an O-level, but I'd left my language block behind.



Journey Latin America (tel: 0181-747 3108) offers flights with Iberia every other day to La Paz in Bolivia, via Santiago, from pounds 579, or via Lima for pounds 561.


For information about travel and language schools in Bolivia, send a request in writing to the Bolivian Embassy Tourist Department, 106 Eaton Square, London SW1 W9AD. Lonely Planet's Latin-American Spanish Phrase Book costs pounds 3.99.