Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote,”every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.” It’s one of my favorite quotes. This post is the sixth in a series that highlight some of the awesome people I’ve had the privilege to learn from.
I learned Spanish from Cami Carreño.
When I came back to Chile in January, I could understand 90% of Spanish, but my speaking was a mess. I talked slow, my vocab was poor, I messed up all sorts of grammar. Many times I had things to say, but the conversation would pass me by as I was trying to formulate what I wanted to say. Sometimes I’d just think to myself “fuck it, it’s not worth bumbling through this sentence, I’m just not gonna bother.”
I came back to Chile in January looking for a job that forced me to speak Spanish and allowed me to learn about how business worked in other countries. Other people had tried to help me learn Spanish previously and some people were genuinely helpful, (thanks guys!). But the vast majority, while well intentioned, were terrible teachers.
Most people who tried to help would say some variation of “but Nate, it’s ser algo and estar algo! they’re different!” both of which mean to be in English. They’d pronounce ser and estar slowly and with extra emphasis as if I’d be able to infer the different meanings if they were spoken slower and with more emphasis. Others would listen to my butchered accent and say, but why do you say “pedro de valdivia that way? it’s easier to say it with the correct accent like this!” and they’d say it over and over. Uhm yea, if it were easier for me to say it correctly, I’d sure as hell be doing it! These differences and pronunciations were self evident to native speakers, but not for me. It was like when my Dad tried to teach me to drive when I was 15. I couldn’t turn the car on. He’d forgotten to tell me to depress the clutch because it was second nature to him. He’d been driving for 35 years!
Others would tell me things like “I met this foreigner and she’s only been her for seven months and she speaks well, you should be able to do the same!” Thanks. Not helping. Others would just make the correct sound over and over, expecting me to be able to say it correctly. Didn’t help. So frustrating.
When I started my job, our bosses gave Cami the thankless job of correcting my blog posts, emails, tweets and helping me with my Spanish when I had questions. Cami is the type of person who who never makes spelling mistakes in emails and uses correct grammar and punctuation in tweets and text messages. Texts! Bad grammar and mangled Spanish seem to physically harm her. She’d noticeably cringe when I spoke poorly as if someone stuck her with a pin or insulted a family member.
She was incredible at finding examples and creating little rules that would help me learn. She also pointed out words that I said wrong that nobody else bothered to correct. I’d gone almost a year and a half saying “instantamente” instead of “instantáneamente” and nobody ever said a thing. I’d probably said it wrong 100s of times. Instead of just editing my work and sending me the corrected draft, we’d read through my drafts and I’d correct the mistakes myself with her help.
She’d come up with rules, and show me examples of what I was getting wrong. Things like “the H is silent at beginnings of words” instead of just correcting me and leaving me in the dark as to why. There were rules about what words have accents and what ones don’t, order of words. And many many more. But the part that helped the most was her ability to put herself in my shoes.
I still have lots of trouble with my accent. But Cami figured out that it was easiest to find sounds in English that were near the sounds in Spanish. So to correctly pronounce Juan, I’d say “who-on” in English a few times to get the right sounds, then keep being able to say it correctly. Or saying an English D to make the R sound. If I say “nadanja” for “naranja” it comes out perfectly and Spanish speakers think I’ve said the R correctly. It’s because the English D and Spanish R are similar mouth movements. Unfortunately there’s no similarity for the RR. So I’m still screwed there.
Through being forced to help me and the desire to work less if I made fewer errors, along with a severe aversion to poor grammar and a gift of teaching more geared toward little kids, Cami Carreño taught me Spanish. I still have a long way to go to truly fix all of my mistakes and be really fluent, but I’ve come a long way. A huge part of that progress is thanks to Cami.