Learning Spanish in Cochabamba

by Amizade Global Service-Learning

This blog entry is part of a series of blogs from Marvin and Martie Wachs, long time friends and supporters of Amizade who have visited and served in Bolivia numerous times.  For more stories from the Wachs visit their blog at

My husband and I spent 6 months in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2003. Our primary reason for being in Cochabamba was to serve as volunteers with Amizade, helping to build a rural orphanage and a rural school. Amizade provides short and long-term opportunities to do a variety of affordable service-learning programs, both abroad and in the U.S. And, especially for long term volunteers like us, Amizade offers group or private Spanish language lessons, to enhance the experience of learning about and living in a new culture.

For me, the language lessons built on a sizable, but very rusty knowledge of Spanish I had developed during a college junior year abroad in Colombia over 30 years before. For my husband, it was a case of starting from the beginning.

I’ve always pooh-poohed the “I’m too old to learn that” mentality. But I have to say that re-learning Spanish when I was over the age of 50 was like navigating through fuzz. Words and information just didn’t stick with me like they had before. My Spanish classes began with 2 hours a day of private lessons, and a female teacher named Janet who must have been half my age. But Janet definitely knew her stuff. And the most important thing I learned in the first few weeks was how much I didn’t know. My homework essays were riddled with red marks, a busy geometric design of black writing on white paper with generous red squiggles, arrows and circles. “We don’t say it that way”, Janet would say. Or “you need to use the definite article in this case”, or “here, you shouldn’t use the definite article”, or “uh-oh, your subject and verb don’t agree”.

I worked really hard to learn the subjunctive tense, but never felt proficient. In English, we are apparently much more certain about everything we say. But in Spanish it seems that every other sentence expresses a wish, uncertainty or possibility that requires using the subjunctive tense. And, of course, the rules are never absolute. You usually use the subjunctive with such and such a phrase, but when it’s not paired with “que”, you only use it if…

Nevertheless, outside of Spanish class, I seemed to get along in the world. I would get what I ordered in restaurants, the taxi would show up at our house, not someone else’s when I gave the driver directions, and others would laugh or nod in all the right places when I related a story or information. So it seemed I was making progress on getting through to them.

I always feel an unexpected, shimmering delight about a new language when I come upon a word or phrase whose juxtaposition or translation catches me off guard. One of my favorite words was: “quehaceres”, which means “chores”, but is literally translated as the “what-to-dos” (“que” meaning “what” and “hacer” meaning “to do”). Even now I imagine myself on an early Saturday morning turning to my husband as I gather my things to head out the door, saying, “I’m just going to run some what-to-dos¨.  Another favorite was “limpiar el polvo” which means “to dust”, but literally translates as “to clean the dust”. It struck me that in the perpetually dry, dusty climate of Cochabamba, perhaps they can’t actually get rid of the dust, so they settle for cleaning it instead.

With Janet as my teacher, pushing me and prodding me through several months, my Spanish improved immensely. It was hard work, and at time frustrating not to be able to improve fast enough, but the rewards were immense – an ability to communicate, love and laugh with the wonderful friends and children we met and worked with in Cochabamba.

-Martie Wachs