Step 2 is the hard part.

Matt Ginzton writes here.

The Perils of Halfway Speaking Spanish

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One of my favorite things about being in Argentina is the opportunity to learn Spanish for real — I’d taken a few months of classes and have that stilted working knowledge which comes from classes which means that if I have time to think very carefully I could maybe construct and understand correct sentences, but at the speed of real conversation, all bets are off. So it was when we arrived here; being surrounded by Spanish (or Castellano, the Argentinian version), it’s not quite full immersion but there’s still plenty of opportunity for learning and I can feel my brain expanding day by day. Once you get to this point with a language, I find, it’s more important to just keep soaking it up, forward forward forward, not bothering to backtrack when you don’t understand every single word or concept in a conversation perfectly — if you interrupt the flow, you’ll get that one discrete piece correct but lose the bigger picture.

Many times I’ve had the sense that I understood everything in the conversation up until 3-ish sentences ago, but have a much hazier picture of the most recent bit. If we just keep talking, that window will revise itself as the formerly most recent bit becomes clearer from context — so at the end of a conversation I’ll have more than the gist of it, but if you interrupt at any moment and ask exactly what we’re talking about I might be confused. This occasionally leaves room for comical misunderstandings but by and large is the most rapid way of learning I’ve found.

This is all by way of excusing myself for the fact that when Javier was driving me and Vanessa up the mountain to Glaciar Martial, where we were to hike around the ski area for a while, and he was explaining to us how we could return to the town of Ushuaia — either along the road we’re currently driving on, or a trail that starts alongside the road, and here’s where to find the trail, and here’s how long to budget for it, and here are some other useful things to know when hiking around the ski area — I didn’t understand the part about the trail being delineated with yellow trail markers, and I didn’t let it bother me that I didn’t understand it.

And this is all by way of excusing myself for the fact that on the way down, we easily found the trail next to the road, then, without knowing it, immediately lost it. We continued along a nicely cleared dirt road until it ended in a swamp, with foot tracks going ahead through the swamp and another well-trodden foot path to the right. Avoiding the swamp, we turned right, and headed downhill for about 50 yards where the trail abruptly petered out. Backtracking, we decided the trail through the swamp also looked pretty well trafficked, so off we went, but after half an hour we hadn’t made it very far, our feet were getting soaked, it was starting to rain, and this trail too was disappearing.

At some point during all this, Vanessa — who’s more competent at Spanish comprehension than I am, but also a lot more reluctant to admit it and act on it — said something about following the yellow brick road, which I took as an allusion to the fact that we were lost in Oz, but which was actually her wondering where to find the yellow trail markers — which she had actually understood in Javier’s instructions.

Eventually we gave up on the swamp trail, backtracked all the way to the paved road, and, about 5 feet from the paved road, found the extremely-obvious-in- retrospect yellow trail markers leading off at 90 degrees to the trail we’d been lost on. (In our defense, they were a lot easier to see in the return direction, and were hidden by the slope in the direction we were originally going.)

Anyway. Knowing just enough to be dangerous, indeed.