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.

LEARNING SPANISH IN LA PAZ

GETTING THERE

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.

FURTHER INFORMATION

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.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

    £14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

    Recruitment Genius: Network Executive - Adrenalin Sports - OTE £21,000

    £19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for an exciting...

    Guru Careers: Product Manager / Product Marketing Manager / Product Owner

    COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Product Manager / Product Owner is required to jo...

    Guru Careers: Carpenter / Maintenance Operator

    £25k plus Benefits: Guru Careers: A Carpenter and Maintenance Operator is need...

    Day In a Page

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
    RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

    RuPaul interview

    The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
    Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

    Secrets of comedy couples

    What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
    Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

    Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

    While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
    The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

    The best swimwear for men

    From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
    Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

    Mark Hix goes summer foraging

     A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
    Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

    With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

    Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
    Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

    Aaron Ramsey interview

    Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
    Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

    Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

    As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
    The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

    Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

    Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms