by Larry Feign
Being a concerned (i.e. sneaky, nosy) parent, I decided it was high time to search my sixteen-year-old daughter's room for unwholesome influences—pornography, drugs, tobacco. Concealing myself behind a bookcase, I waited for her to step out to meet friends, then nudged open her bedroom door. I tip-toed through the post-Apocalyptic mess of books, dirty clothes, candy wrappers and dozens of gadget recharging plugs covering her floor, bed, desk and shelves. Where to begin?
They didn't take long to find. Not in a drawer or stuffed under a mattress or rolled inside a pair of socks. I didn't touch her computer. They were right where I expected them to be: in her Spanish textbook. No, not slipped between the pages. On the pages themselves.
With trembling fingers I flipped the latch of her school backpack and pulled out Advanced Spanish Vocabulary, Second Edition, by Isabel Melero Orta, a required text of her Hong Kong high school Spanish class. It was well-thumbed; not a positive sign. Slowly, I opened the cover. My eyes stopped at the second word of vocabulary:
el adulterio: adultery
Further down on the same page I came across these useful terms:
la bigamia: bigamy
la edad de consentimiento: age of consent
la relación sexual: sexual intercourse
By page 2 things heated up a bit more:
la vida sexual: sex life
tener una aventura amorosa: to have an affair
prueba de paternidad: paternity test
I couldn’t stop reading. The next page brought us through los malos tratos a la mujer (wife battering), tomar la píldora (to be on the pill), un embarazo no deseado (an unwanted pregnancy) and the mandatory phrase that every high school student needs to know: perder tu virginidad (to lose your virginity).
But there's no need to dwell on sex. Skip ahead to page 44 and we get into other essential items of conversation:
fumar diez cigarillos al día: to smoke ten cigarettes a day
la cocaína: cocaine
inhalar pegamento: sniff glue
fumar un porro: to smoke a joint
inyectar la heroína: to inject heroin
Hopefully the teacher can explain the subtle differences between colocado (to be high on drugs) and estar trompa (to be stoned).
I’m not making up any of this!
Try to imagine the conversation practice:
María: ¡Hola, Juan!
Juan: ¡Hola, María!
María: Vamos a perder la virginidad. (p. 8)
Juan: Primero vamos a fumar un poco de éxtasis. (p. 45)
María: Esa cabeza rapada yonqui es mi proxeneta. (p. 55)
Che: ¡Hola! ¿Quieres la pornografía dura? (p. 73)

Mary: Hello, John.
John: Hello, Mary.
Mary: Let's lose our virginity.
John: First let's smoke some ecstasy.
Mary: This skinhead junkie is my pimp.
Che: Hello! Want some hardcore porn?

We haven’t even gotten to the chapters about terrorism, racism and abortions.
Who is this book meant for? I turned to the back cover: "...revised to incorporate all the topics specified for A level..." Smoking joints and losing your virginity are specified for A level? We never had that much fun when I was in high school. In fact, I vaguely remember that such behaviours might even have been frowned upon.
Well, what else do you expect from those hot-blooded Spaniards? At least they wait until A Levels. I’ll bet in French classes, losing virginity is in Textbook 1, Lesson 2:
Bonjour. – Bonjour. – Voulez-vous coucher avec moi? – Bien sûr, stupide! Je suis français!
Hello. Hello. Do you want to sleep with me? Of course, stupid! I’m French!
It makes me wonder what’s in other A Level textbooks. Imagine the German study guide...
Ich saufe Bier.
Du säufst Bier.
Er/sie/es säuft Bier.
Wir sind stockbetrunken.
Lass uns einige Drecksau englische Fußballfans halbtot prügeln.

I slurp beer.
You slurp beer.
He/she/it slurps beer.
We are stone drunk.
Let's go beat up some filthy swine English football fans.

Or Mandarin Chinese...

Let's go shopping.
Yes, I love shopping.
What shall we buy today?
Repulse Bay.
A flat in Repulse Bay?
No, Repulse Bay.

Are other subjects being made "relevant for today's youth culture"? What about Math?
Student A is downloading a DivX encoding of "Inception" from Pirate Bay. The torrent has 156 seeders at an average upload speed of 35 megabits. Meanwhile Student B is grabbing an MP4 version from a Rapidshare free user link. If Student B tweets three times per minute that he’s listening to a hacked Pandora account on his jailbroken iPhone while waiting for the download, what is the statistical chance that a hot chick will Facebook friend him?
I shudder to think of what they might be up to in Chemistry class.
Back to Advanced Spanish Vocabulary, Second Edition. When I was in high school, this was the kind of "learn forbidden words in another language" book that someone would always sneak into class and everyone would snicker at until the teacher walked in and the owner would stuff it in his lunch box. Now they’re required texts? If this is what they're studying in high school, what textbooks do they use in university? Snuff porn magazines?
How can a Spanish textbook teach about cocaine, heroin overdoses and drunkenness, yet not include the word for wine? It's full of vocabulary about adultery, bisexuality, rape, divorce and backstreet abortions, but look up sweetheart, romance or honeymoon. You won’t find them. That doesn't sound like the silver-tongued Spaniards I know.
I have this naive fantasy—totally baseless, of course—that my baby girl maintains a droplet of innocence and that her mind is not yet halfway in the gutter. Add to this an idealistic notion that, as the classic cowboy song goes, "Spanish is the loving tongue," the language of Cervantes, Gabriel García Márquez and the romantic lyrics of Latin American canciones and boleros.
Maybe she needs to switch languages, from a place where ugly things don’t happen. I wonder if they have A Levels in Elvish.

This article appeared in CULTURE Magazine, September 2010 | ©2010 Larry Feign