Quarantine Chronicles Day 63: Learning Spanish during downtime—como se dice ‘I need help’?

For my next assignment in the Long Beach Post staff’s quest to turn me into a COVID-era renaissance man, the staff’s wizard Dennis Dean has suggested, or perhaps demanded, I download the Duolingo app and learn a second language.

It’s probably the No. 1 item on most coronavirus isolationists’ list of things to do while on quarantine or any other variety of staying safe at home. French, German, Italian (Spanish speakers favorite), Chinese, Japanese, Khmer.

Because I’m in a hurry to learn a new language, I chose Spanish. It’s the perfect choice for someone who has spent his entire life in Southern California, with its Spanish terms for various cities (if you can say and translate “Los Angeles” and “San Francisco,” you’re already on your way to fluency), streets (Junipero notwithstanding) and other geographical landmarks.

We grew up with missions and Mexican restaurants—many of us had our first Spanish lesson at the then-new Taco Bells, which began popping up in the mid-1960s with their helpful pronunciation guides on their menus: Buh-REE-Toe, Toe-STAH-da, and the tongue-twister TAH-co.

Spanish is also relatively easy when it comes to pronunciation. It hews to well-defined phonetic rules, unlike English with its countless exceptions and deviations. In Spanish, you would never pronounce “ghoti” as “fish.”

My initial couple of hours on Duolingo were spent mostly with the app figuring out how much Spanish I already know, which, as it turned out, wasn’t an insignificant amount. I know a lot of Spanish nouns—and so does every English speaker, thanks to something in excess of 1,000 Spanish-English cognates. Bus translates to bus, bar is bar, peculiar is peculiar, and so on. Then there are the near-cognates, like aeropuerto and a host of others.

So Duolingo flagged me through a lot of early lessons, mostly because the questions were printed sentences I had to translate, and if you know a handful of Spanish nouns, it’s a lot easier to translate the written word from Spanish to English than it is to go from English to Spanish.

I also downloaded some flashcards, which turned out to be uselessly simple, with multiple-choice questions like what’s Spanish for “May I have the check, please?” I don’t know how to say “check” and I don’t know how to conjugate anything, but my mad flashcard skills enabled me to choose “Puedes darme la cuenta, por favor” over the other two options, which were “No,” and “Lo siento.”

Lo Siento (I’m sorry) is something with which I have more than a passing familiarity, having heard it countless times from Bernice, a Spanish-speaking office manager I used to work with. She said it to me on numerous occasions, usually with heavy sarcasm rather than heartfelt contrition.

But there’s a lot more to learning Spanish than picking up various nouns, and conjugation is where (and I just learned this) necesito ayuda—I need help. I am, in that regard, somewhere south of beginner, though listen to this:

Yo como pan.

Yo bebo agua.

Como se dice “baby steps”?

These early lessons have to do with travel. Where’s the toilet? Does this bus take me to the train station? Will you take me to the airport? and other phrases that will serve me well if I ever get back down to Mexico and need to use a toilet or get to the train station.

Still, I don’t know if I have the discipline to keep up with my Duolingo lessons, but I’d like to think I will. Maybe mañana.

After three days of activities ordered by my colleagues, my ranking, in terms of level of enthusiasm, so far is:

  1. Baking
  2. Spanish lessons
  3. Yoga

And if you’re a betting man, don’t look for yoga to ever rocket to the top. And there are many more areas of self-improvement awaiting me, including painting by numbers, calligraphy and sitting around listening to records. Eventually, something ought to stick.

Quarantine Chronicles is a series of daily dispatches from columnist Tim Grobaty, who began staying at home on March 16 to protect himself and others from the coronavirus pandemic. Read them all here.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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