If you could wake up tomorrow and be fluent in any language you don’t currently speak, which would it be? Why? What’s the first thing you do with your new linguistic skills?
“[Your daughter] is speaking at slightly below grade-level in Spanish,” my daughter’s first grade teacher wrote in the Notes section of her report card. “She is sensitive and worried about making mistakes. Please let her know that making mistakes is an opportunity to learn.”
The same advice applies to me. I know some Spanish — mostly nouns and some present tense verbs — and I can have a decent conversation with a two-year-old, but I’m pretty sure that my Spanish sounds like Tarzan chatting up Jane.
I even feel shy about speaking Spanish with my El Salvadorean nanny, who I know wouldn’t make fun of me. This morning, I thought, I’ll try. And just as I was about to say, “Es muy frio! I leapt to the comfort of English.
Why? I’m frustrated by that in-the-head translation time, the time it takes for me to think my thought in English and then look up the Spanish translation with a search engine that is light years slower than Google. I also dislike not being able to fully express myself, and, yes, dislike feeling stupid. Spanish immersion schools didn’t exist when I was growing up in Connecticut in the 80s. Instead, schools introduced us a foreign language (Spanish or French) in 7th grade, when our brains aren’t nearly so pliable. I took Spanish until freshman year of college, seven years, and then I tossed that lengua aside. There was no one to practice with in Lynchburg, Va.
Fast forward nearly 20 years later to my life now in the Washington, D.C., metro area where the Hispanic population hovers between 14 and 15 percent. I think about how I felt the first time I left the country and lived for a summer in Italy. I felt like a different person the first few weeks there: quiet and frustrated that I couldn’t express and share my thoughts. I remember thinking, “these people have no idea who I am!” Like an iceberg, they were only seeing a small portion of who I really was.
That experience of being “the other” helps me empathize with the native Spanish speakers in my life. Do they feel like shadows in our culture, seen and not heard? If I could wake up tomorrow morning and speak Spanish, I would really get to know my nanny who speaks fairly decent English, but is much more expressive and comfortable in Spanish. I could strike up a conversation with the woman who waters the plants in my office, travel to Central or South America, or Spain, and experience the food, culture, and people in a more intimate way. And, I could help my daughter overcome her reluctance to speak Spanish. My husband and I didn’t chose to send our daughter to a Spanish-Immersion School to “get ahead;” rather, we chose to send her to gain compassion and understanding of cultures and people different than our own.