Midnight, and I’m wide awake with jet lag. Last night, I flew from Boston to Malaga, on Spain’s Costa del Sol. I’m here to spend a week at the Malaca Instituto, renowned for helping businesspeople from companies such as Volkswagen and IBM to master Spanish.
I’ll brush up on my espanol each morning and hit the links each afternoon. That’s just one way the Instituto puts some fun into learning Spanish: It takes advantage of Spain’s near-madness for el golf. After six hours of class work each day, many students see if they can make the grade on their conversational Spanish while attempting to make par on one of Malaga’s world-class courses. (Many others take flamenco lessons, head for the beaches, or go horseback-riding.)
My Spanish, I think, is no problema. I just need a refresher. But my golf – !Ay caramba! Unlike most who come here (especially the executives), I’m a rank hacker. My handicap is incalculable.
I’ve been having this recurring nightmare: I’m out on the course, about to tee off. My entire Spanish class is watching me, calling out conflicting advice in bad Spanish, wrecking my concentration. I raise my club over my shoulder, bring it down fast – too fast – and whiff the ball. I do this again and again, amid jeers and Spanish catcalls. I never get off that first tee.
I remind myself that I’m here for a higher purpose: Before I die, I want to speak Spanish flawlessly. I’m not alone in taking my Spanish seriously. Businesspeople who are on the fast track need international work experience. And in many emerging economies, if you can’t speak Spanish, you can bid hasta luego to closing that deal.
Trouble is, no one wants to learn a language the way many of us did in high school: in a stifling classroom, with boring drills read aloud in a soporific drone by Mr. Bad Accent. A better method is to study “in country” – to become immersed in the language while visiting an exotic place, surrounded by sun- burnished beaches and top-flight golf courses. Malaga, home of the Malaca Instituto, is just such a place.
The Malaca Instituto (Malaca being the old Phoenician name for Malaga) develops all of its own texts, and trains and certifies its own teachers. Every class must follow the Instituto’s rule numero uno: Only Spanish spoken here.
Earlier this evening, at a reception for new students, I discovered that of the 75 or so newcomers here this week, just three of us are American. This pleased me: I didn’t come here to practice my English. Almost 70% are German; the rest include other Europeans and a few Japanese. Most businesspeople stay for two weeks, though four weeks is ideal. According to Ida Willadsen, the Instituto’s founder and director, “It takes a German or American university an entire year to cover what we cover in just one month.”
As we adjourned for sangria, Willadsen advised us to rest well tonight. First thing tomorrow, we’ll take a test that will place us in an appropriate class.
Trying to fall asleep while my body tells me it’s six hours earlier, I find a new worry to replace my golf nightmare: I wrote on the Instituto’s application that I’m an advanced-Spanish speaker. But now I’m so nervous, I can’t even remember how to say, “Wake me when it’s over!”
Bad golf, questionable Spanish. This looks like a week made in hell.
The Grammar Slammer
I’m mortified. I failed to make the cut for the advanced class. The test revealed that my use of the subjunctive is muy malo, and I’ve been assigned to the “high intermediate” group instead.
Our instructor, Mari Carmen Perez, bursts into the classroom with a flurry of greetings, all in rapid-fire Spanish. She hands each of us a work sheet. Just a little warm-up, she says. I quickly scan it and blanch: It’s a drill on the subjunctive.
She begins with Helmut Hoehr, a 36-year-old German software engineer, who sits to her left. I start strategizing. He’s three seats away from me, so she will probably call on me to fill in the fourth blank on the work sheet. It’s a phrase from a classified ad: “Firm seeking production chief [who would be available] to travel.” Hypothetical situation – definitely subjunctive. What’s the correct verb ending?
Meanwhile, the software engineer is stuck. He can’t think of the subjunctive form of “save money.” Exasperated, he says the phrase in German.
Perez rebukes him: “I don’t understand German. Describe with other Spanish words what you wish to say, or else act it out.”
Of course, she’s right. We won’t get very far if we use our native languages as a crutch. It’s just that none of us wants to look bad. Especially not me. Fortunately, I’ve come up with the verb for blank number four. I’m just two people away. . . .
“Lucia,” says Perez. “Do the next sentence, please.”
What the – ? She’s skipped over two people and picked me. My eyes dart wildly over the page. Perez just smiles. She’s onto my game. Humbled, I hear myself ask, in Spanish, “What number are we on?”
The first day’s classes have concluded, and many of the businesspeople head for Malaga’s 18-hole Anoreta Golf Course, designed by Jose Maria Canizares, one of Spain’s top golfers. I’m consigned to a driving range, where I’ll receive a one-on-one lesson. As I approach the range, I imagine myself stationed for eternity at some first tee, barraged by jeers and catcalls. My instructor, Valle Espana, is here to keep that from happening. Mercifully, she shows infinite patience when I swing at the ball and miss it – once, twice, thrice.
With a voice husky from admonishing too many novices before me, Espana coaches in brisk, fluent Spanish. “!No no no!,” she exclaims. “Think of your shoulders as the wings of an airplane, see?” She puts her arms straight out and swings them. She tells me to put down my club and to do the same.
I whoosh my arms back and forth. Any pretension I’d had of appearing dignified has evaporated into the warm Mediterranean air. Finally, Espana says I can stop. I pick up my club, lift my shoulders into an airplane position, and bring the club down. Phthonk. The ball rolls impotently a few yards from my feet.
Another student at the Instituto, Mike Tooman, 59, a retired plastics executive from Milwaukee, is on the tee next to mine, whacking big, 250-yard drives. I’m hoping that he’s not paying too much attention to my errant swings. But of course he is. And just like the people in my dream, he decides to practice his Spanish by giving me golfing advice.
“Don’t take your eye off the ball,” he says haltingly – but it comes out as “Put the ball in your eye.” (Good advice, not-so-good Spanish.)
I pick up my seven-iron, and as I come up on my backswing, I think about Espana’s airplane. I drive the club down for contact, and thwock! I’ve hit a good one. I stand in my follow-through position a full three seconds, as Espana has taught me to do. She lets out a “!Fantastico!” and then abruptly ends the lesson. “It’s always good to stop on a high note,” she says. She knows she’s not coaching the next Nancy Lopez.
On my third day, I sit in on the commercial Spanish class, the one I failed to get into because I didn’t have the subjunctive down cold. It’s an advanced-level course that focuses on the finer points of doing business in Spanish.
One of the students is discussing an article in today’s El Pais about trade opportunities between Spain and India. He is halted in mid-sentence by a sharp rap! The student, Juergen Behnke, 28, a German industrial engineer with a stubble of red hair, corrects himself. He continues speaking until that rap! sounds again. It’s the instructor’s pen colliding with the edge of the table – which tells Behnke he’s flubbed again. His face reddens to the color of his hair.
The instructor, Juan Antonio Gomez, has been helping students hone their business Spanish for more than 20 years, and was once an administrative head for Deutsche Bank. His manner is formal and cool, but I detect a glint of humor in those eyes. And now he’s leveled them on me.
I try to pick up where Behnke left off. Gomez interrupts to tell me that I don’t seem to know how to pronounce the Spanish “c.” I continue, and once again, I’m stopped in mid-sentence, this time by the dreaded rap! He’s caught me slurring a verb ending. I look up to see his large brown eyes lifted dramatically to the ceiling. “Senorita McCauley,” he says, with just enough irony, “how do we form the verb ‘to invest’ in the subjunctive mood?”
I’m totally stumped. Fumbling for words – any words – I feel myself sinking down, down . . . and then, like a life-saver, my Spanish-English dictionary bobs into view. My hand makes a go for it and –
“!No!” comes the sharp rebuke from Gomez. “You can’t reach for a dictionary at a business lunch in Madrid, can you?”
The truth of his words hits me, and in a flash, I spit out the verb. I’ve never seen such a beautiful sight as Gomez’s slow, approving nod.
Far Away on the Fairway
My final day, and my moment of truth – here on the first tee at Anoreta – is imminent. I’m in a foursome with Mike Tooman and Sergio Rodriguez, a local pro, and a friend of his. Tooman is prattling on about how gorgeous this course is – the Mediterranean on one side, eucalyptus and olive trees all around. Though I’m nervous, I don’t fail to notice that Tooman’s Spanish has improved: His accent is coming along, and he’s not halting self-consciously after each word.
At the first hole, Rodriguez hands me a six-iron. I waggle into position. I waggle again. Left arm straight on the upswing, I launch into the drive and phsaaaak: The ball flies into a nearby grove of scrub pine – and with it goes the club, which has dislodged itself from my grip.
The nightmare has come true. Tooman is speaking Spanish again, trying to calm me. “Miguel,” I say, despite myself, “your Spanish, it’s . . . flowing.”
He smiles. He had a turning point this week, he says. On a walk through the local park, he overheard some small children talking. “They were speaking Spanish-making mistakes, as children do,” he recalls. “But they were getting the words out. I decided to stop thinking about how to say things, and just say them instead.”
At the par-three fifth hole, I clench my club and waggle into position. “Relax your grip,” says Rodriguez. “The club is the neck of a baby bird. Don’t choke it.” I loosen my grip on the baby bird and swing. The ball zips into the air and drops just a few yards from the hole. I let out a little yelp. There’s clapping all around me.
As we play through the remaining holes on the front nine, I begin to hit more balls than I miss. And I realize that I’ve learned something from that one good shot – the same thing that Tooman learned from those kids: I’ve learned to let go of my fear of looking bad. In language as in sport, sometimes you’ve got to stop thinking to get ahead.
Lucy McCauley, formerly the copy chief at Fast Company, is a freelance travel writer and the editor of Travelers’ Tales: Spain (O’Reilly & Associates, 1995).