June 24 2011
Marketing consultant Lottie Bailey likes to do something useful with her holidays and has been meaning to learn Spanish for some time. The impetus finally arrives in the form of a potential Spanish client, and Lottie signs up for “super-intensive beginners” – a week-long course in Granada, which, according to the brochure, is “for professional people in need of learning Spanish quickly”.
In addition to mastering key phrases – such as “A large glass of rioja, please” and “Where can I get a taxi?” – she is confident that she will have a fine grasp of the basics before the week is out. Her current knowledge of Spanish is limited to “Hola!” and “No hablo español” but the school reassures her that the course is for “absolutely beginners” and Lottie believes that she has a natural flair for languages, having notched up S-level French and German at school (admittedly, some time ago).
Her trip gets off to an exhilarating start with a cab driver who sweeps along the curving autoroute at 130kmph while talking very animatedly into a hand-held mobile. Lottie makes a mental note to learn the Spanish for “Please slow down” as a matter of priority.
On arrival at the Esperanza Language School, she is asked to fill in a form entitled “personal dates” and is directed to Aula 2, where Franz, a teenager wearing a ponytail and an Iron Maiden T-shirt is waiting, along with Andreas, an athletic German fitness instructor, and Elsa, a rather serious Polish girl. The final member of the group, Sandrine, slides into her seat at the final moment and in a husky French accent asks Andreas if she can borrow some paper, in such a way that it sounds like an indecent proposal. Andreas’s hands tremble slightly as he hands over a wodge of foolscap.
Surveying her fellow beginners, Lottie worries that, with the exception of Elsa, they might not be able to keep up. But then Pepe the teacher arrives and, speaking only Spanish, soon puts paid to that preconception. Lottie has absolutely no idea what he is talking about – but soon realises that everyone else does.
After an excruciating 90 minutes Lottie joins her classmates in the tapas bar next door, where over café con leches she discovers that Franz is studying for the German equivalent of a Spanish A-level; Andreas has been learning Spanish at night school; and Elsa has been following an audio course in her car for the past two years. Even Sandrine owns up to having done Esperanza’s three-month beginners’ course before.
Back in the classroom, things progress at a fast pace and “total immersion” rapidly turns into total aversion, as far as Lottie is concerned. She must have missed the bit where Pepe covered personal pronouns, and is (literally) speechless when they are suddenly expected to conjugate sentences.
Worse, whenever Lottie tries to look up a word in the dictionary, Pepe signals for her to put it away and starts to mime the word instead, neatly drawing attention to her ignorance while holding up the rest of the class. When she finally gets it, Pepe shouts “Fantastico!” and the others sigh with relief.
Meanwhile, Andreas and Sandrine pair up enthusiastically for exercises and, on day three, pitch up together, looking as if they haven’t had much sleep. During a morning devoted to prepositions, Lottie notices that they are playing footsie under the table.
On day four, faced with delivering a whiteboard presentation on the layout of her ideal town, which she was supposed to have prepared in advance, Lottie bunks off to experience some Spanish culture – namely, a visit to Zara Home.
At the end of the week, during another white-knuckle ride back to the airport – she is still unable to ask the cab driver to slow down – Lottie receives a message telling her that the Spanish client has pulled out. It’s probably just as well. After a week of intensive Spanish, she is able to tell people that she likes animals and football and ask the way to the station – although she hasn’t a hope of understanding any reply.
There is one Spanish phrase, however, that continues to be really useful. Sadly, it is “No hablo español.”