Something to talk about in Salamanca

Isabel Conway’s new year resolution? To learn Spanish. So she took herself off to Salamanca to do just that.

Something to talk about in Salamanca

Ensenar el perro juegos nuevos’ (a hasty translation from my new Spanish mini Larousse: Can you teach an old dog new tricks?) is barely recognisable in the linguistic landscape.

Yet gallant Jesus Gonzales in reply politely enquires “cuanto anos tienes… 36?” (What age are you… 36?)

We are making each other’s acquaintance in the Spanish hilltop city of Salamanca, famous for its foreign language schools north west of Madrid.

There’s one truth (forget the age thing!) I must share with him before fulfilling my belated New Year’s resolution to learn Spanish, together with losing weight, writing a best seller, making pots of money and joining a gym.

Rising above the pitying looks of the locals by asking for directions in their language, figuring out menus and making a bit of simple comprehensible conversation as one travels across the vast Spanish speaking world of travel from Tenerife to Toledo and Casablanca to Chile is my goal.

But sadly I have no natural talent for picking up a foreign language thanks to a lousy ear and hopeless retention skills.

Until recently I didn’t even know there were more bilingual than monolingual people on the planet.

But why expect non-native English speakers everywhere (as many of us do as a right) to automatically speak our language? Now having conquered Spanish as my 2017 New Year resolution, I can flirt with suave Spaniards, then progress to Italian and who knows where that may lead.

On a more grounded level meanwhile learning a foreign language improves brain functionality and delays dementia, they say.

So 10 minutes a day reeling off declensions and repeating greetings on Duo Lingo is akin to a gym for the mind. I can’t wait to get going.

Mester Institute on Vazquez Coronado close to Salamanca’s beautiful old town enrols me in raw beginners Class 1 A on an ad hoc assessment of my limited vocabulary (hullo, goodbye, glass of wine please).

Students come here from all over the world from student tourists like us on short introduction courses to those who immerse themselves for weeks, even months in the language, culture and traditions of Spain.

Spanish is programmed into their free time from guided tours of Salamanca monuments to movies, tapas tours, cookery classes, concerts, Salsa lessons, football matches and even horse riding on bull farms so you live and breathe the language constantly.

After just a week the expectation is we can “understand and utilize frequently used expressions, employ simple phrases and communicate basically as long as the person you are speaking with does so slowly with clarity and is willing to cooperate”. But try telling that to our taxi driver on the way back to Madrid.

My limited vocabulary (hullo, goodbye, glass of wine please) consigns me to Class 1 A of raw beginners while my highly motivated travelling companions are duly promoted.

Riki from Hong Kong is conversant in Spanish, having lived six months in Granada, while exuberant Irish blogger Nadia studied Spanish in secondary school.

My fellow students included a dreamy-looking young Dutch woman “in love with the sound of Spanish”.

By the end of morning we realised that the rudiments of Spanish grammar were complicated while its alphabet was full of tongue twisters and tricky vowel sounds.

By day two we were racing on towards irregular verbs and realisation that most of the widely-used verbs fall into that category and must be learnt parrot fashion. True to his name dark-eyed speedy Jesus Gonzales streaked his magic pen at a lightning pace across the smart blackboard wired to the internet as we took copious notes.

Our conversation teacher Ruth bounced into class full of good cheer speaking only in Spanish after saying in perfect English “don’t let fear keep you from using your Spanish”.

With a combination of mime and infinite patience she coaxed us to try simple sentences (littered with mistakes) using our dictionaries, notes, the course guide and her prompts.

What did we eat and what did we see during the extracurricular events organised by the Institute that included a terrific evening-long tapas and wine tour (costing €9) and a look at Salamanca’s historic highlights of golden coloured buildings and hidden plazas all conducted in Spanish naturally, she asks?

Dutch Maud and I desperately think of an answer.

Eventually — hours later as it feels — I blurt out “jo como tortilla espanola con Sangria” ( I eat Spanish omelette with Sangria). Teacher Ruth reacts as if hearing the secrets of the Holy Grail itself. A little reassured I add “me gusta” (I like it!) and she nods si si and almost applauds.

Waves of love — being a student and in Spain — engulf me.

By day three Ruth is coaching us on telling the time, the calendar and numerical skills (another minefield!) and by day four we are having some down time in the Institute’s kitchen undergoing a culinary session with Jesus Gonzalez who prepares some regional specialities imparting a useful lexicon of foods and ingredients as the pans sizzle.

Known as Spain’s cradle of learning with its oldest university established in the 16th century, an Irish College for training Irish priests opened its doors here in Salamanca in the late 1500s, remembered to this day in a plaque on the original building.

Christopher Columbus also drew on the Salamanca’s learning while planning his voyages of exploration.

Famous for its superb architecture and interesting history Salamanca turns out to be an upbeat modern and dynamic city with lots of personality and many bars and inexpensive restaurants geared to a large impoverished student population.

The tapas bars (my favourite was Don Maur on Plaza Mayor) around Calle van Dyck and Plaza Mayor and discos in a labyrinth of laneways were full of atmosphere and crowded until late.

From Salamanca we took a side trip to Ciudad Rodrigo 90kms south west near the border with Portugal finding ourselves in a wonderful little medieval town where seldom a word of English (or any other language except Spanish and occasionally Portuguese is heard) so it is the ultimate test.

By now we were ordering food and passing small talk with whoever was willing to listen.

My tongue twister “quisiera pagar con tarjeta de credito por favour” (I would like to pay with a credit card please) raised the eyebrows here due to my poor pronunciation.

Later useful free language app Duolingo I have downloaded may work wonders reminding me daily to practise to ‘hable espanol’. Speaking Spanish like there is no ‘manana’ has become my big new year resolution so having a ‘smart’ phone in on the act does no harm.

More in this section


The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up