Learning Spanish—A Journey Through Mexican Markets and Grandmothers’ Recipes 

Learning another language is stressful at the best of times. Learning it well enough to welcome our son’s Bolivian fiancée into our family at their upcoming wedding was becoming a source of panic attacks. So, my husband and I did the obvious thing: we enrolled in a residential Spanish language immersion program. We chose Anders Languages, one hour south of Mexico City in Cuernavaca. It’s advertised as a discerning school for demanding adults. We are that, but the process cuts two ways. The teaching masters expected students to speak in Spanish from Day One. And that was a challenge when the only phrases we came to Mexico with were ¡Hola senor!, Gracias senora, and Una cerveza por favor.

2017-Mexico-chilesWe selected Anders’ culinary program thinking that if we could not learn the language then at least we would eat well. The first morning’s task was the preparation of Chiaquiles Verdes y Cecina. When there is real work to accomplish, language learning becomes focused. Within an hour we had acquired, and were using, the appropriate verbs and nouns with a beginning sense that competence could be in sight.

The twelve hour days were structured. Classroom time would prepare us for an activity such as going to el mercado with the money and a shopping list for the ingredients to make Mollettes con Frijoles y Queso. We made the purchases and managed the process of receiving change. The experience was both fun and terrifying. More importantly it was culturally exciting. This was a market like I remembered from student days in Toronto. There were vendors prepared to cut off a section of fruit for sampling. There were butchers selling meat quite literally from head-to-hoof-to- tail. The sense of entrepreneurialism and pride from the vendors was compelling. How is it, I wondered, that we have come to settle for supermarket produce?

2017-Mexico-meat marketWith our market money spent and ingredients stored away we settled into our classroom exercises for a review and prepared to learn the next round of vocabulary. The next morning, when the instructors determined that the tortillas on hand were not quite fresh enough, we went to a Molino y Tortilleria to watch the production of tortillas from corn mash through to finished product. We left with a column of warm tortillas.

If the way to anyone’s heart is through the stomach, then I would pose that the path to the brain’s language acquisition areas is through aromas and flavours. Each school day began with a family style breakfast at a long table with our instructors and fellow students. We met again for lunch and dinner, enjoying the delicious dishes prepared in lessons with fellow students and by our cook, Gloria (I wanted to bring Gloria back to Canada with us!).

Each meal was an opportunity to engage socially in Spanish. We watched and listened in awe as one of the students who was on her fifth language fearlessly asked questions. Our competency for the first week was limited. We could respond haltingly to questions which often had to be repeated slowly. Ears, it seems, can be slow to pick up subtleties of pronunciation. Both of us managed better with reading and writing, but that’s not how conversations are generally conducted. By the middle of the second week we could frame questions as our instructors and fellow students patiently waited for us to search out vocabulary in our brains… or on Google Translate when the synapses failed.

The personalized classroom structure was absolutely necessary for us as adult learners. My husband and I were a class; our multi-lingual fellow student was in her own class as was a fourth student who joined us at the dining room table in the second week. Our needs as adults were unique, and we were all in our own ways demanding—learning what we needed to wanted to learn.

2017-Mexico-pozoleBy the end of the two weeks we had ordered and eaten meals at two different mercados (Tepoztlán and Medellin), dined on street food, prepared Pozole with fellow students and a professional chef, prepared a recipe of Chiles en Negrada from one of our teacher’s grandmothers, sipped our way through a tequila tasting, dined at a Relais & Châteaux restaurant, managed a weekend trip to Taxco on our own, and consumed several bottles of red wine from Valle de Guadalupe.

This trip to Mexico was our first experience off the beaten tourist path of sunshine, beaches and ex-pats. On previous trips, renting through VRBO, we had thought that we were experiencing authentic Mexican life. Not so. If language is the key to unlocking a culture then shopping for ingredients and preparing recipes handed down through generations of mothers and grandmothers is the way to absorb it. The test now is to deliver a Spanish welcome to our future daughter-in-law. Undoubtedly, we’ll manage better with a glass of Spanish red.

© 2018 – Bonnie L. Lendrum – All Rights Reserved |

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humor despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to friends and family who want to prepare themselves to help fulfill the final wishes of someone they love. 





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  1. BABYBOOMER johanna van zanten

    Hola Amiga,

    Loved this report of your learning Spanish through the nose and mouth–so true that’s how one learns. I want that too. My daily life in Mexico in the winter is learning on the markets and cooking and eating, and trying to talk my way through with my neighbours during 6 months a year.

  2. Diane

    Hi Bonnie My journey of learning Spanish in Madrid was similar to yours – language lessons in the morning followed by a visit to the markets and or the shops and putting myself in uncomfortable situations. There were also the hours of studying on my ownboth grammar and vocabulary. Having French as a first language helped a lot as the verb declension is similar. I tackled the public transportation when I didn’t fully understand the system and got myself terribly loss. I finally arrived home in a taxi and in the dark to a very worried but relieved husband. I was able to laugh about the experience after a fine bottle of “vino tinto. Some things are worth the effort – good on you for persevering. Hugs Diane

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