When in Mexico…El Nopal Spanish School

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 by Nadine York

When in Mexico, it follows that you speak Spanish, right? But maybe you don’t. Maybe you’ve never been out of your native country, or you’re just lousy with languages. There’s hope! It’s called El Nopal – not the cactus, the language school. Only here for a short time? Why bother, you say? I’ll tell you why. Because it’s fun! Maybe fun in a sort of masochistic way, like putting yourself in kindergarten again. But, hey, kindergarten was fun, wasn’t it?

My husband Pete and I decided last year to improve our un poquito de espanol. So we called El Nopal. The next day we met with owners Marta and Juan in the school’s open courtyard – which serves a multitude of purposes, from classes for children to chatting over a cup of coffee with other classmates. Marta and Juan look like they are barely out of school themselves. Then we discovered that four of the children running around on break were theirs.

The interview was relaxed, informal, and simple. Marta and Juan told us about the school, and then Marta started asking questions in Spanish – simple questions, like what is your name? and where are you from? Instant brain freeze. Vaguely Spanish-sounding words stumbled and bumbled from my mouth. Enough said.

“When do you want to start?” Marta asked. I guess we weren’t hopeless.

“As soon as we can,” I said, “but one question: we have a small dog and he’s nervous about being left alone. Can we bring him?”

Marta grinned. First vocabulary word – consentido – spoiled. And, yes, we could bring him. So Dozer, too, became a student (tuition free); and being a little salchicha, a wiener dog, he also became a hit with the kids.

We started a few days later with two one-hour classes a week: one with Marta and one with Dulce. It was a good pace for me to absorb what we were learning. Pete and I were in a group class – although it was just the two of us – so we could progress through the basics at a nice clip.

Let me clarify that Spanish did not then, and still does not, roll off my tongue in fluid sentences. One day Marta was teaching us the use of the idiomatic phrase tener que, which translates to English as “to have to.” I have to go to the dentist; visit my friend in the hospital; buy my mother some flowers. So many things that everyone has to do – he, she, I, we, they, you – and each pronoun requires a different form of the verb.

So there I sat that day, creating simple sentences one word at time, at the slowest speed imaginable. For just a moment, I lifted up out of my own tortured brain, and wondered what it might be like for Marta, a native speaker, to listen to us pulverize her language.

“Marta, I am so sorry. It must be torture for you to listen to us struggling to say such simple things!”

Marta burst into laughter. The idea of torture had never entered her mind. And I understand, because when a non-native English speaker stumbles over grammar or mispronounces a word, I still know what they’re saying. The point about learning another language isn’t about speed, or perfection, or fluency – though I can hope I will eventually achieve those. The real essence of learning a language is a willingness to try – to try to communicate – in a language not your own, in a country where that language is native. How humbling to find yourself in kindergarten again. Yet what an act of respect to native speakers, to offer your willingness.

El Nopal is a comfortable and safe space to begin, to continue, to refine, and/or to deepen your journey into Spanish. It’s a community that opens its doors to all ages: the children with brains quick to learn, and gray-headed oldies like myself whose brains plod and stutter. It offers group and individual classes on site, and Skype classes if you want to continue learning back home. They’re even flexible enough to include dogs.

This year under the fine tutelage of Mayra, our current instructor, Pete and I have continued to learn new words, phrases, and idioms. I even have a little past tense to add to my repertoire. Thanks to El Nopal, I have more confidence to get out there and torture other native Spanish speakers – on the malecón, in the grocery store, or at the beach. When I see them smile, I count myself lucky to have made another friend.

Photos courtesy of Pete White.

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