Saturday, April 29, 2017

Speaking Spanish with a Native Speaker...the Ricardo Montalbán effect!

Last night we had the pleasure of meeting Juan Manuel at one of the local cantinas. We had chatted briefly with him before, but tonight the bar was pretty full and recognizing him, we invited him to sit at our table. The conversation that ensued was such a delight it inspired me to write about the importance of getting to know the locals and learning to speak Spanish. 

Juan Manuel, or just Manuel as he goes by, is a dapper, soft-spoken man in his mid-fifties. He speaks English very well, but from the beginning of our conversation did not hesitate to switch back and forth to Spanish and test the limits of my skills. We have been doing fairly intensive Spanish study lately, and I can say that I have improved significantly in the last month. With that said however, my Spanish still sucks, and having an opportunity to sit and talk with a bilingual Mexican showed me there is no substitute for real conversation, in a real life situation.

The worst part about speaking a little Spanish is that once you do, the person you are speaking with will often assume you speak a lot of Spanish. This will frequently trigger a rapid-fire burst of Spanish dialog that unfortunately sounds a lot like blaho-blaho-blaho to me. This overwhelming stream of words is impossible to comprehend and usually ends up with me just shaking my head and muttering “Si” no matter what it is they actually said. This can cause some real problems when you suddenly have ordered 50 kilos of some strange looking fruit, or have 100 live chickens delivered to your door. To avoid this, you can either say “despacio por favor” (slowly please), or admit “mi español no es muy bueno” (my Spanish sucks). Either way your conversations will be somewhat limited.

But by speaking directly with a bilingual speaker, I was able to ask questions, get corrections, and blunder my way through a real conversation. This experience was invaluable, as many of the lessons we have taken where you learn how to say something like “the elephant wants more grapes on the cake” (an actual phrase from a lesson) have for some reason just not proved to be that valuable. In the short time that we spoke, while I sucked down a beer and a couple of shots of Tequila, and Manuel drank Brandy and Coke (a strange drink for a Mexican!), my confidence in speaking grew stronger by the minute.   

What’s weird, for me at least, is the rather strange effect that speaking in English with a Spanish speaker has on you. For some reason, I just can’t seem to help myself from speaking English with a Spanish accent. Like some bad actor in a B-grade Mexican Western, my voice sounds like either the “we don’t need no stinking badges” guy from Sierra Madre, or the smooth tones of what I call the Ricardo Montalbán effect. The really weird thing is though, it seems to work, and the Mexicans I have spoken with either don’t seem to notice, or are too polite to laugh. I sometimes think about what it must be like for the Mexicans to try and talk with us gringos. It might be comparable to trying to have an adult conversation with a three year old, only our grammar and pronunciation are probably worse! What was nice was Manuel saying I spoke very good Spanish. I have had a few other native speakers say this, and what I have realized is my pronunciation of the limited words I have mastered is apparently pretty good. This is encouraging! Speaking Spanish here will not only make your life easier, it will enrich your experience in many, many ways.


One tip I can share with those of you who are currently learning Spanish and struggle to keep up in conversations is to focus hard on hearing the words you do know, and not try to figure out every word. I first applied this to understanding how much money I was being asked for. By listening carefully to the first part of what they are saying, I could figure out what I needed to cover what was being asked for. If they say “trescientos…blah blah blah” I know they are asking for more than three hundred, but less than four. I simply hand them four hundred and get my change. Previously I had tried to listen to the whole thing, got lost, and just shook my head while sticking out a large pile of cash. I then learned to apply this to full sentences. If I hear three or four words that I understand, I can usually extrapolate the rest of the sentence.

As we left the cantina, we bid farewell to Manuel and invited him to a “Bridges not Walls” party we are throwing at another of our favorite watering holes on Cinco de Mayo. He graciously accepted and I sincerely hope we will see our new friend again soon!


  1. Great post!

    This has been exactly our experience as well (except that we don't acquire Montalban accents when we switch to English ;-) ), and your tips really do work.

    An approach that works for me is to learn and use (and use and use) stock phrases and everyday verbs in the most common conjugations, and let the "generalities" come as they will... in other words, I go from specific to general rather than general to specific. Mostly.

  2. Another thing that has been very helpful to me is to listen carefully to what people are actually saying in conversation. The lessons we have used are often kind of formal and do not represent the way that people actually talk.

  3. Quite so! Language lessons (and this includes classes in school) that insist that students construct full-blown formal responses to everything are not realistic, and tend to fluster and discourage attempts to speak. If I ever teach ESL I will be happy to accept comprehending responses like "Yes" and "I don't know" in lieu of "Yes, the pen of my aunt is on the table" and "I don't know how much wood a woodchuck should be able to chuck."

  4. Hey, John! This is so interesting to me, as an ESL teacher and person who tried to learn a few languages.

  5. Hey, John! This is great to hear about as an ESL teacher and someone who has attempted to learn other languages. Hope all is good for you two.