Every time I step off the plane in Mexico, I am excited and confident–eager to use the beautiful language I have spent so many hours learning and practicing.
When our driver greets us with “Buenos dias, ¿como estas?” I respond with enthusiasm and a fluency born of frequent use “¡Bien, gracias! ¿Y usted?” I immediately start thinking “Wow! Listen to that! I sound like a native!”
I am still patting myself on the back when I realize the driver has stopped talking. He is smiling at me expectantly, and I can only guess he has asked me a question.
Oh dear. He seems so pleased to find that I speak his language, and he’s just so nice. Not only do I have absolutely no idea what he asked me, I’m struck dumb with anxiety and indecision about how to even ask him to repeat his question.
Is it rude to say, “repeta, por favor?” Do I address him in the familiar “tu” form or should I use “usted?” Even if I get past that, what if I use “le” when it ought to be “la?” Or “por” when it should be”para?” Or, even worse, “ser” when it should be “estar?!”
During the fifteen or twenty seconds all my indecision takes, my kind driver waits patiently. Oh dear. I must try.
I take a deep breath and smile broadly. “Uh, uh, uh,” I stutter, “puedo, I mean, puede, I mean, puedes, or is it podria? Puede repetir su—” (And, just like that, the Spanish word for “question”–a word I know well, evaporates from my mind).
I look at my poor driver. My shoulders slump. In a voice just above a whisper, I say “Lo siento, señor—¿Ingles, por favor?”