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Zombie Kids Must Die: The World’s Best Magazine for Learning Spanish

November 5, 2010

I hated fat little Juan. I hated his glum pal, Maria, too.

They lived in a book my father gave me when I was five to help me learn Spanish.

Like child-zombies from Night of the Living Dead, Juan and Maria lurched across bland landscapes to stare blankly at a hen eating grain, or at a field of unripe corn, or at a mule drinking water.

They seemed to live, I think, in Puerto Rico. (Juan’s mother, yet another soulless blank-eyed Puerto Rican, served the kids milk and fried plantains when they returned from their pointless excursions.)

Only academics who compose foreign-language “learning materials” for children could reduce Puerto Rico to a colorless zombie-land where lifeless tots take long walks to watch chickens eat grain.

Ultimately, all the Spanish I ever learned, to the extent I ever learned it, is what I acquired from my father and his friends — a group of guys he knew who owned dicey curio shops in Mexican border towns and who thought it hilarious to have me, a small boy, use a big wooden mallet and a tree stump to pit the slippery home-cured olives they and my father snacked on while guzzling cases of beer and telling filthy jokes and cackling like hyenas.

(The benefits of this particular “total-immersion method” are most obvious whenever I happen to visit a dicey curio shop in a Mexican border town, and rather less so in those social situations requiring that I speak Spanish among people whose favor and respect aren’t as easily won with filthy jokes and obscene idioms.)

In the decades following my olive-pitting days, I learned some other languages and never encountered a textbook or “learning material” that didn’t make the language at issue seem as though it were spoken exclusively by common imbeciles who inhabited the most boring place on earth.

But a few years ago at Mexican bookstores and airports, I started noticing an oddly shaped magazine — 5 inches wide, 12 inches tall — named Algarabia.

I bought my first issue on impulse. I think it featured articles about tequila-inspired songs and the history of toilet paper, among other things.

I soon didn’t care what I was reading about, really.

Algarabia‘s editor, María del Pilar Montes de Oca, a buxom Mexico City-born brunette with a PhD in linguistics and an impressive range of international postgrad cred, manages to inspire an exuberant, well-educated, colloquial prose that’s so serious about the joys of Spanish, and of el idioma Mexicano in particular, that its highest value is absolute clarity.

In interviews, Maria’s confessed that her aim is seduction.

In a country where so many people are ignorant but not stupid, she says, where most literary fiction and non-fiction are often affordable for only the upper-middle classes and beyond, where the popular media increasingly malnourish the considerable talent and curiosity of the Mexican masses with a thin, grimy diet of cheap light-weight thrills, Maria sees Algarabia’s mission as enticing readers with the beauty of the language they use every day of their lives so that they’ll choose to spend their valuable free time reading real books on their own.

Maria’s greatest talent, of course, is knowing that there’s good lowbrow culture as well as bad highbrow, and that the best of highbrow and lowbrow engages the universal pleasure people take in their mother tongue, in manipulating and playing with it, admiring its crudeness, its delicacy, the history and ingenuity of its slang, in its amazing capacity to destroy relationships forever or create undying loyalty with just a few well-chosen, or incautious, words.

Maria understands that this pleasure can lift us above life’s mundane sorrow:

We may not control our fate, but we can and do choose the words we use and the ways in which we use them. We’re not completely powerless. Anyone with language can be a virtuoso.

Maria also knows that most Mexicans have very hard lives and are poor. But while they may be poor, they’re among the most linguistically rich people in the world.

To spread this wealth around, Maria now sells Algarabia in Argentina, Chile, Peru, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, Columbia, and even the US of A.

For readers either barely literate, literate, or hyper-literate in Spanish, Maria and her writers compose brief, tangy pieces on just about everything — humanity’s conception of hell, the logic and meaning of bra sizes, how to curse someone effectively in Yiddish, the history of the Spanish letters CH and LL, the etymology of the word “Mexico,” the evolution of the clock, under-appreciated Mexican obscenities using the verb chingar, the romantic life of King Kong, how to weigh an electron, hyper-cool slang, the development of the chair, the most common and uncommon surnames in the Mexico City phone book, et cetera, et cetera. (You can peruse the entire first issue of Algarabia for free by simply clicking here.)

Or you can just run out right now and buy a copy. (Readers in Mexico can find out where they can buy the most recent issue by simply clicking here.)

The content’s so pungent and delightful that you’ll probably understand most, if not all, of what you read, and even if you don’t you’ll likely toss your dictionary aside and, seduced by Maria and her writers, you’ll continue reading as if you understood everything until, eventually, to your surprise, you finally realize that you do.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 5, 2010 1:06 am

    I’ve always wanted to know who it was that decided that everyone trying to learn a new language needs to immediately learn how to say “Where is the library?”. Who are these people that are constantly looking for libraries in foreign countries during their first year of learning the language? What do they expect to do when they get there?

  2. November 5, 2010 12:40 pm

    I agree “Hugo”–it’s a lively magazine indeed.

    May I also suggest a computer learning program called BUENO ENTONCES–for anyone enjoying youthful irreverence which is also educational. You Tube has lots of clips for a taste. And finally, IF you are able to laugh at yourself, this never gets old: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngRq82c8Baw.

  3. Ye Olde Gringoe permalink
    November 5, 2010 2:23 pm

    Because I’m probably older than almost everyone who reads Expats Anonymous, I believe I can say with some confidence that that quality and content of foreign-language learning materials has actually improved over the past twenty years.

    For example, I remember very clearly when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) maintained a a global monopoly on Mandarin instruction via the University of Beijing.

    (The PRC had a number of unusual political reasons for exerting this control, such as promoting the use of the simplified Chinese characters developed by the PRC government in the 1950s and 1960s.)

    The result was that the University of Beijing produced Mandarin-language textbooks for foreigners that were very probably the most beautifully and solidly made, and inexpensive, soft-cover foreign-language textbooks ever published by anyone, anywhere.

    The typeface was lovely and crisp. The lay-out and design were gorgeous. Even the paper the text was printed on was of extremely high quality.

    But the text itself was so boring as to be life-threatening, or at least toxic.

    The PRC government had a big problem on its hands.

    While it was very very eager to encourage as many foreigners as possible to study Mandarin, and thereby perhaps develop warm and cozy feelings for the PRC government, it wanted foreigners and PRC citizens to have as little personal contact and interaction as possible.

    And if you want to maintain that kind of rigid, pervasive segregation, you can’t very well publish Mandarin language textbooks that present PRC citizens as the sort of attractive, charismatic, interesting, intelligent, and charming people with whom a foreign Mandarin-language student would really, really want to practice his or her newly acquired Mandarin.

    And you certainly wouldn’t want to give a lot of colorful information about China, Chinese culture, or Chinese history, because it might inspire a foreign Mandarin-language student at Beijing University to do something truly crazy, like wander away from the campus, unescorted, and unsupervised, and explore Beijing on his or her own, or, even worse, engage in casual, unmonitored contact with an actual Chinese person.

    So as to avoid these hazards, the beautiful, inexpensive Mandarin-language textbooks published by Beijing University were written in such a way that, from the very first lesson, the reader was immediately paired with a fictional “friend,” who also happened to be another foreigner studying Mandarin, but who was invariably from an ill-defined and entirely fictional African nation and who had a given name that was likely unpronounceable in any African language, fictional or real, and certainly unpronounceable in Mandarin.

    Together, you and your fictional African buddy with an unpronounceable name were to persist together like Siamese twins joined at the hip, inseparable, united by some very definite quirks, such as having no apparent interest whatsoever in meeting Chinese people, or even ever venturing outside the university campus.

    The end result was the impression of existing in a freakish and incredibly tiny society inhabited exclusively by an international collection of vaguely pleasant non-Chinese people who lived in China, but who interacted only with each other, and at only the most superficial level.

    China did not exist. Chinese people did not exist.

    It was only you and your African friend and the ghostly cohort of other foreigners who drifted about the two of you, exchanging curt banalities such as, “Hello. Are you studying hard for the exam?” and “I think the weather is getting warmer, don’t you?”

    When you look at Beijing now, with its billionaire foreigners and billionaire Chinese coming and going as they please, with foreigners and Chinese marrying, and even having sex, with each other, as they please, the ghost-town Beijing of those Mandarin-language textbooks seems like a story dreamed up by Borges.

  4. November 5, 2010 9:27 pm

    Algarrabia is actually my daughters favourite (note the Canadian spelling) magazine and I always take a copy when I visit her. Certainly better than the latest edition of ‘Tu’ or ‘Gente Bien’.

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