What the Spanish Textbooks Don’t Tell You: Casi Todo

My huzzband and I own at least seven Spanish textbooks and CDs and subscribe to one Spanish podcast. Two were written and published in the U.S. for American college students, the rest were written and published in Mexico for visiting college students. Not surprisingly, the latter are better because they are entirely in Spanish from page one — no instructions in English, ever.

However, when you move to Mexico City with only the most remedial of Spanish speaking skills, like we did, you learn quite quickly that neither type of textbook (U.S. or Mexican made) addresses the needs of expats. They are useful, of course, but only to a point — I didn’t really need to learn all the vocabulary for classrooms and schools, but I know it anyway, thanks to my dumb books, which all focus on that in the first chapter. (I will admit that all our Spanish textbooks are still way superior to my high school German textbook, which wasted an entire chapter on gummy bears. Or, das Gummibärchen!)

Por ejemplo. After living in our apartment for more than two months, I finally got around to hanging our pictures on the walls. I waited this long partly out of sheer laziness and exhaustion — moving to a foreign country, while still working almost full-time, is thoroughly exhausting (I am so tired right now I can’t even think of another word for exhaustion.) Anyhoodles, I hung a few pictures yesterday but soon used up our supply of nails we brought with us.

So, that meant, damn: Time for another self-taught lesson you’ll never find in the textbooks — Going to the Hardware Store.

Lesson One: Own a really big dictionary that has all the oh-so-useful words that “pocket-size” English-Spanish dictionaries don’t have.

Lesson Two: Then create the expected conversation in your head before you leave the apartment (“Hola, buenos tardes, necessito …nails?!”)

Lesson Three: Yep, here’s where you use the dictionary. Nails is clavos en espanol. And, for the record, unlike in English, clavos does not mean both nails for hammering and nails on your fingers. The latter are unas.

Lesson Four: Head into the unknown, in this case, the ferreteria.

Joy: “Hola, buenos tardes, necessito clavos….Como este” (I hold my thumb and forefinger apart about 20 centimeters to indicate needed size.)

Vendedor: “Por concreto o paredes?”

Joy: “Si, paredes.” (I only know paredes means walls because we recently embarked on another adventure the textbooks never cover: house painting. Whew — a potential awkward situation thwarted, and a sign I’m actually learning espanol!).

Vendedor shuffled around, found nails. Handed me one that’s the right size, but pretty stout. Uh-oh….Time to think on my feet.

Joy: “Hmmm…tiene clavos….mas delgado?”

Vendedor: “No.” (And an unsympathetic no at that.)

Joy. “Oh. Esta bien. Cinco, por favor. Cuantos?”

Vendedor: “Cinco pesos.”

Joy: “Gracias, y hasta luego.”

If you’re still awake after reading that, you see what I mean by mundane. Yet important. And nowhere in my 7 Spanish textbooks.

10 thoughts on “What the Spanish Textbooks Don’t Tell You: Casi Todo

  1. DKN says:

    “(I will admit that all our Spanish textbooks are still way superior to my high school German textbook, which wasted an entire chapter on gummy bears. Or, das Gummibärchen!)”

    That is too too too funny! LOL!

  2. Nacho y tal says:

    The best way to learn all the spanish you need -you know, all that spanish that’s never found in the books- is making spanish friends. But in order to achieve that you need to, you know, make friends.

    Have fun with your ‘buenos’ tardes 😛

  3. Dictina says:

    Ja,ja, siendo de España lo de “concreto” no lo había entendido al principio. Concreto debe de ser lo que llamamos cemento por estos lares.

    Um, la ferretería, en todo caso, es siempre una experiencia. Una cueva de Aladino repleta de artilugios misteriosos y con unos empleados como esfinges, haciendote preguntas enigmáticas.

    Suerte con vuestro aprendizaje


  4. sparkyman says:

    Sorry to read that, I mean… I got some foreign friends who are/were studying Spanish (I am Spanish myself, you guessed right) but I never thought the main odd they had to beat when facing an actual conversation in Spanish is the fact their textbooks could suck so badly.

    I remember my English textbooks at school did their best to cover as much daily life vocabulary as possible. However, I don’t know if I could really face a conversation like the one you had at the ferretería in English, but I think my total lack of memory and practice in conversational English are to blame, rather than my textbooks. I’ve never been to any English-speaking country and I rely too much in the vocabulary I learned in video games and the Internet -no kidding. Shame on me.

    Good luck with your expat adventure.

    By the way, no, you can’t buy a ferret in a ferreteria, but I really wish you could.

  5. Ray says:

    Most textbooks are for grammar and rules how to write or talk. That’s the reason you should always learn vocabulary in addition.

    In my opinion it’s not the textbooks but rather our laziness – at least I can speak for myself herewith.

    Anyway, Spanish is a nice language, easier than German but with some, a bit more difficult, features than English.


  6. Teresa says:

    Very amusing account. You sound like a writer of short stories.
    As a Spanish instructor in the states, I recommend learning some vocabulary and practicing a few verb conjugations. Perhaps you can find someone to practice speaking with.
    Buena suerte.

  7. Robert says:

    What is very handy to have is a “Pictorial Dictionary.” Oxford does publish them.

    Each page will have a detailed illustration of a hardware store, car, hospital, an exhaustive listing of men’s clothing…. even different types of mustaches, types of women’s lingerie…. whatever… the items in the photo will be numbered and at the bottom of the page will be the Spanish and English word.

    There’s also a listing at the back of the book with the word you need with the page reference. When my Spanish students go on mission trips, I make photocopies of the pages they need. Same thing for adult groups.

    Oxford also publishes great bi-lingual dictionaries. I have the regular and the pictorial both in French and in Spanish. [I order online via Barnes and Noble and get free shipping and discounts. There’s always an angle to save money.]

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