Keenan’s Spanish has improved immensely. He’s gotten to a point where carrying a decent conversation or expressing an important to-do list is not anymore a struggle. And as luck would have it, the teachers we have, in part, to thank for this upturn are not real people but rather miniature Spanish voices.
I’ll be sitting in the office, waiting for guests to arrive at the hotel, the music coming from Keenan’s laptop on a muted low. The volume of this music, most often quiet and comforting tunes, is just enough to give the office atmosphere a nice relaxed feel. Sometimes I’ll sing along. Sometimes I’ll tap my foot.
But then, with the speed of a chorus change, on they will come.
“Donde esta el bano?” the deep voice might say; no background music or anything. “Where is the bathroom?”
Right behind me to the left I think to myself, before I realize the man is part of Keenan’s audio book Spanish lessons. “Donde esta el banco?” he’d then say before I can respond to his first request. “Where is the bank?”
Well, which is it, the bathroom or the bank? I think out loud. Which do you want amigo?
Sometimes a woman is introduced to the conversation: a woman I envision wearing tight European clothes and standing beside her bicycle, the basket of which is invariably filled with books and Spanish groceries like tomatoes and saffron and wine. I listen to their conversation which always involves slow and repetitive speech and picture the two Spaniards inside Keenan’s little computer, sitting just below the keyboard perhaps like a pair of mini-socialites.
Part of the problem with these tapes is that, while they are thoroughly useful in learning generic phrases, they offer little flexibility or versatility when it comes to the real world.
I’ve experienced, numerous times, Keenan caught in a real-life conversation where his audio books have, quite simply failed him. “Where is the bank?” he might ask a stranger on the street. But then, when the stranger asks which bank he is looking for, Keenan’s caught like a mute in a rock concert. “Um…uh…” he’d say. “Where is…the big bank?”
It is in these situations that he comes off sounding not like the traditional Spanish-speaker (like the book cover guarantees) but rather like a robot or a broken Spanish record. You could almost imagine the guy from the recording throwing his papers at the ground in disgust and embarrassment, like a disappointed high school football coach. “Come on Keenan! We went over this five times yesterday!”
There was another scenario in which Keenan was listening to his lessons when Elida, a maid at Los Cuatro Tulipanes, walked in behind him. There was a brief pause in the audio file, before a man came on (with a similar intonation to that of Keenan himself) and asked out loud. “Could you please pass me the salt?”
I saw Elida’s head turn like a hawk. She delivered Keenan the computer-requested salt soon thereafter, and we all took comfort in the fact that it did not dreadfully surprise her that he might be capable of producing that question himself: something that sounded OK and actually made sense.
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