05 January 2013

Learning Spanish

So there I was, about to turn fifteen years old and sitting in a room of virtual strangers, trying to figure out what was being said.  Two years of middle school Spanish, which I had failed, did not prepare me for being totally on my own amongst teenage females who spoke about as much English as I did Spanish.  I was definitely not prepared. 

Photo of the youth taken 1997, 2 years after I started visiting this part of Mexico.

I had agreed to come on this trip having fallen in love with this place only a few months before.  Then I was with other American teenagers who barely spoke Spanish as well as translators, so I could at least be able to make my needs and wants known.  This weekend trip was different, as by this point in the evening my translators had retired to their own borrowed rooms and I had to rely on my own wits to get me through the night in my own borrowed bed with my new, albeit temporary, roommates.

There were several girls talking and laughing.  I stuck out like a sore thumb, the only blond gringa in a group of dark haired Mexicans.  I felt helpless, as I spoke about 5 words of Spanish well.  The girls must have sensed my discomfort, for one of them, Patti, held out a banana and asked me something in Spanish.  I thought she was giving me a Spanish lesson, so I tried to search my mind for the correct word for banana.

“Es plat… es plantan… plantano, si?” I asked, feeling completely dumb as I stumbled over my words.

Patti shook her head and thought for a moment. “No, you want?” She asked in English, before repeating in Spanish, “quieres?”

“Oh! No, gracias” I replied.  “No me gusta.”   I was telling her I didn’t like it, which was the truth, since I have never liked bananas.

Thus began my Spanish lessons.  While I learned to write and conjugate verbs in high school Spanish courses in my California hometown, I learned to speak it in a tiny town in Mexico, at a home for needy and abused children in Baja California, four hours’ drive from my parents’ home.  I spent several weekends, parts of summers and many a week living and breathing Spanish as spoken in that part of the world, gaining the unique accent that comes from that town.  Soon I was translating for others, a position I found myself in well into my college years and for years after.  And I loved it.   I became nearly fluent in the language, and sometimes had full dreams in Spanish

The children and staff, Christmas 1998
But then, I moved to Iowa.  Yes, there are Spanish speakers here, but their dialect is different.  Their words are faster and they don’t take the time for me to translate their words in my head before becoming impatient with me, so I am more self-conscious of how I speak.  Many don’t even know I understand most of what they are saying as I hear them in certain parts of town.

Yet, when I chat online with the kids that I met and grew up with at that children’s home, as I read their statuses on Facebook and get messages from them, I am once again renewed in my love for the language and my wish to regain the fluency with which I once spoke.

As I wrote this tonight, I recalled a poem, the ONLY poem I had ever memorized in Spanish.   It was a poem by Luis Alberto Ambroggio, "Aprender al ingles" or "Learning English", which was translated into English by Lori M. Carlson.   The first stanza always spoke to me, and even tonight it speaks to me.  Click here for an English translation of the poem.

So if you see me online and you want to strike up a conversation in Spanish, let me know.  I'll be glad to get back into the practice of the second language that I love so much.

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