Not too late to hablar

I woke up at 5 a.m. today to practice conjugating verbs. I’m OK with regular verbs in the present tense. I’ve learned a handful of irregulars, as well.

Punctuation and spelling are killing me. Sure, you can count to a million. But can you spell those numbers—in español?

I can. But only because I’m at the university at siete y media de la mañana (7:30 a.m.) taking a first-semester Spanish course.

It’s tricky. So much to remember. Displaced negatives. Asexual objects coming down with fearful cases of gender. And worse, symbols that don’t exist in English.

You can hear the punctuation when you say the word, I’m told, if you say the word correctly. That requires memorization, lots of it.

I studied French in high school and college. In Nevada, knowing French is useful for mocking the employees of Paris Casino in Vegas. That’s about it.

My inability to speak Spanish shames me. I’ve been reporting in Northern Nevada for more than a decade. I often roam public places looking for interviewees.

When I needed sources for a story on health care, I headed for the Washoe County Health Department, where parents take kids for cheap shots. Since waiting times for immunizations can be a couple of hours, it seemed a good place to chat. I approached a woman herding preschoolers.

“Hi, I’m Deidre, and I write for the newspaper,” I said.

She nodded. I went on.

“Would you mind if I asked you a few questions?”

She smiled.

“What kind of health insurance does your family have?”

She shook her head.

“No English.”

Ah, lo siento. Sorry. Repeat scenario with two other moms.

Let’s not even talk about that working trip to Mexico a couple of years ago. Highlight: I repeatedly referred to my husband as “mi esposa.” Imagined reaction: “Hey, Pablo, check out the lesbian married to the buff chick with facial hair.”

I’ve tried reporting with the help of translators. Once I took a helpful friend to interview so-called “casual” laborers, Reno men who line up early every morning on Galletti Way hoping for temp work. Many of these guys are Hispanic. Some surely have intriguing stories to tell.

But talking to someone through a translator is a bit like playing Telephone. Messages passed along get shortened and hopelessly muddled. If you’ve seen the film Lost in Translation, you get the idea.

I asked, “What prevents you from finding regular work?”

The “source” spoke at length, explaining what I imagined to be the complexities of his working life. The translator summed up succinctly.

“He has a job but today is his day off.”

Woe to the journalist who craves nuance. Around the globe, people shake their heads at narrow-minded norteamericanos and our oft-flaunted monolinguality.

We expect everyone who comes here to learn English—and learn it fast. Most do and become accountants, teachers and business owners. Still, it’s frustrating not to be able to communicate well with the fastest-growing subset of my community. The nation’s Hispanic population reached 41.3 million last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Between immigration and a high birth rate, Hispanics account for about half the U.S. population growth.

Ah, democracy. Where, theoretically, rules are crafted for the majority. Here’s something for the xenophobes to wrap their minds around: Perhaps one day, a future nanny state will decree that English must be taught alongside Spanish in the public schools, as a courtesy.

For my part, I enjoy hablo-ing a bit of español. In three short weeks, I’ve learned numbers, colors and the names of familiar classroom objects. I can talk about my family, appearance, drink preferences and personality type—un poco de un rebelde.