the universal language
on photos for enlargements
Having completed 3 weeks of language classes at the Andalusí Spanish
Institute in Málaga, Spain, I’ve learned a lot about
the Spanish language and a bit about being American.
I’ve learned to conjugate regular and irregular verbs. I’ve
learned to construct basic sentences in the present, past perfect,
past imperfect and past indefinite tenses. After greeting the waiter
and ordering boquerones (a tasty sardine-like fish) and tinto de
verano (red wine and Sprite) at my favorite tapas bar, I can digest
bite-size portions of the local Spanish-language newspaper.
Thanks to a dedicated staff of profesores who taught exclusively
in Spanish (they gesticulated like mimes when I couldn’t understand),
I’m well on my way to learning a second language. But when
a European classmate asked a cultural question, I needed to study
a map before I could answer.
Allow me to explain.
Of all the resort towns along the Costa del Sol, Málaga is
the largest and most prominent. Lured by 16 city beaches and the
narrow winding streets of Old Town, hordes of visitors flock each
year to this sun-drenched destination. Many mix leisure with learning
by enrolling at one of Málaga’s 20 Spanish language
I enrolled at the Andalusí Institute because it’s relatively
small (a maximum of 8 students per class, 150 total students during
peak summer months), located in a quiet residential neighborhood,
and because most of the students come from Holland and Germany.
By avoiding the schools preferred by my fellow Americans (as well
as Britons, Canadians and Australians), I could resist temptation
and speak Spanish instead of English during class breaks.
For 4 hours each day, 5 days per week, I soaked up lessons along
with 7 Dutch and German students. But the Europeans seemed to soak
up lessons faster. (They were Bounty “Quicker picker-uppers” and
I was the generic paper towel.) Sure, my mind often drifted from
the classroom toward the topless beauties sprawled on nearby beaches.
Sure, my desire to explore the city sometimes overruled my desire
to do homework. But these weren’t my most obvious shortcomings.
During a 30-minute lunch break, I found out what was.
Due to the nature of her job, Kirsten, a German banker, speaks 3
languages fluently (German, French and English). Because of educational
requirements in The Netherlands, most Dutch students also speak 3
languages (Dutch, English and French). A few speak German as well,
bringing their total to 4. For them, Spanish would be their fifth
As it turned out, I was the only mono-lingual person in class. Most
of my European counterparts were half my age and spoke at least 3
times as many languages.
After pondering my all-American upbringing, I bit into a bocadillo
(sandwich) and eavesdropped on the lunchtime conversations. While
sitting in lounge chairs by the pool, my classmates alternated between
Dutch, French, German and English, with occasional forays into Spanish.
I marveled at their ability to shift linguistic gears. I envied the
cultural multiplicity. But when a 20-year-old Dutch student turned
to me, I was caught with a mouthful of bocadillo. Blue eyes blinking
innocently, she spoke in textbook English. “How many languages
do you speak?”
I felt like the frog at a gathering of princesses.
After I admitted my linguistic shortcomings, she asked a profound
question. “How can you survive with only one language?” I
answered her the following day, after consulting an encyclopedia.
North America, third largest of the 7 continents, is made up of only
three countries: the United States, Canada and Mexico. Two of these
countries speak the same language. Europe, by comparison, is comprised
of 43 countries sharing 38 languages on the world’s second
Northern Italians speak Swiss-German. Ten percent of Swiss citizens
speak Italian, which along with German and French is one of 3 official
languages. Depending on where you are in Spain, you’ll hear
Galician, Catalan or Basque languages as well as ubiquitous Español.
Amsterdam, the largest city in The Netherlands, is within 500 air
miles of London, Paris, Brussels, Geneva, Munich and Prague. I grew
up in Chicago. The only “foreign” city within 500 miles
Which is a lame excuse for not conjugating verbs as fast everyone
else in my class. A more plausible explanation could be that people
who speak multiple languages often have an easier time learning an
“Poco y poco,” cautioned Anna Belén, my favorite
Spanish instructor. Halfway through a 1-hour private class, she paused
smile at me. It was the smile of a teacher whose lesson finally “clicks” in
the mind of her student.
“Sí profesora,” I replied, nodding my head like
the schoolboy I was decades ago. “Little by little I’m
is the largest town on Spain’s famed Costa
del Sol, and the major point of disembarkation for
A few leading language schools are listed below.
For tourism information and a list of additional
Instituto Andalusí de Español: Calle
Reino de Leon 10, Málaga 29018; Tel: 001-34-952-206-128;
Web: www.andalusi.org. Prices for one week (20 hours)
of classes begin at $379.00 including accommodation
(based on an exchange rate of 0.779 euros to the
Malaca Instituto: Calle Cortada 6 - Cerrado de Calderón,
Málaga 29018; Tel: 001-34-952-293-242; Web:
Pablo Picasso Instituto de Español: Plaza de
la Merced 20, Málaga 29012; Tel: 001-34-952-213-932;
Málaga Plus: Pasaje Antonio Barceló Madueño
n† 8, Málaga 29018; Tel: 001-34-952-299-330;