Having arrived in Panama with a significant hunk of Spanish already figured out, I suppose I don’t know how Keenan feels. He’s starting the fight to learn Spanish from what amounts to lingual zilch, hearing words for the first time like a large baby.
Just the other day, I overheard him talking to Elida, one of our maids, in a discussion that was characterized—not unlike an independent film—by silence and uncertainty. It very soon became clear that not only was Keenan struggling to express himself but Elida was desperately struggling to understand.
“You, Elida, can clean, below my feet, please?” he said, making a mopping motion that more looked like he was stirring a giant cauldron. He got himself into trouble when he tried describing the mop he wanted her to use.
“You, Elida, can clean below my feet with a tall…pencil…with…hair on the end?” This confused Elida as I presume it would anyone asked to wash someone’s feet using human hair and a pencil. In all fairness though, Keenan’s Spanish is based on the same round-about approach that we all use some point or another in exploring a second language. It’s the strategy of using words and phrases we do know to somehow express the ones we don’t.
When his conversations involve strangers, Keenan likes to begin with “yo no hablo espanol”, which is like a considerate warning to the chaos out to ensue. This usually buys him some elbow room in the humiliation department but it’s his other tactic that really lightens the miscommunication mood.
You see, he’s learned several Spanish phrases which are, for lack of a better term, graceless. It is these phrases, such as “I am a meatball” and “Do you need toilet paper” that can turn any awkward conversation, effortlessly into a funny one. He sometimes likes to clarify his slogans (as we’ve come to call them) with a peculiar twist. “I am a meatball made of cat” he’ll throw in there, or “You need toiled paper for your ass?”
The phrases he knows, he knows very well.
He’s got a book that’s orange on How to Learn Spanish, The Fun Way which I see lying around his bedroom and bathroom, the pages folded over like dog ears. Inside you’ll find pages full of vocabulary, such as things to buy in a grocery store, types of vehicles, and various life-ending diseases, throughout which you’ll periodically see circles or underlines. I presume, from the strangeness of his selections, that he’s probably plotting a new slogan.
Keenan approached the language barrier in Panama going at a top speed and crashed into it full on, smashing his face and knocking out a handful of teeth. He used the blood from this collision to etch several important words like into a notebook which he carries in his back pocket for easy access.