I studied Spanish from 7th – 12th grade. In college, I took all of my humanities electives as Hispanic literature courses (taught in Spanish). During my first grad school stint, I hung out with the International Student Association and shared an apartment with a woman from Honduras. I’ve also studied a little bit of French, but am better at reading it than hearing or speaking.
With all this, you’d think I’d be comfortable speaking Spanish. Yet, I have so few opportunities to practice that I get intimidated easily. I recognize that it is the intimidation factor as I become fairly fluent after a couple of beers. I learned this hanging out with the International Student Association and going to their parties. The lowered inhibitions allow me to speak without worrying if I’ve used the right tenses when I speak.
One of my professors who is preparing for an immersion trip to Guatemala, together with a woman from the dean’s office who is originally from Mexico, have begun reserving a room at the seminary on Wednesdays for lunchtime conversation in Spanish. I thought this might be a great opportunity for me to practice in a less threatening venue than the real world, so I went to check it out.
When I entered the room, K. from the dean’s office was there, as were S. – one of my professors this semester, M. another of my professors this semester, and V. – a classmate.
K. spoke Spanish (Of course! She is from Mexico.); S. knew some Italian, having lived 5 years in Rome, but no Spanish; M. was dragged in by S., but had studied Spanish for 3 years in Jr. & Sr. High; and I never quite got V.’s story.
J. – another of my professors this semester and the woman who set it up came in a little late, dragging along KD who we discovered was born in Puerto Rico. I have known him for some time, but was unaware of this tidbit. He always calls me “Cuz” when he sees me, (another story for another time), so when he came in I said, “Eh, Primo.” (Primo is Spanish for cousin.)
As we tried to speak, I could understand nearly everything that K. said in Spanish. I understood most of what KD said as well, although his accent was strange to my ears. S. spoke Italian, and I often understood him (because of similarities to French & Spanish and past attempts to read Italian), and sometimes repeated what he said in Italian back to him in Spanish. M. kept saying in English that he would never again follow S. into a room at lunch, and J. thought carefully about each word before she would say it, and therefore really struggled. She tried, but it was apparent she was working hard. V. did okay speaking, but had more trouble understanding, and she had to leave early to go to another meeting.
K. commented to J. that I speak Spanish very well. I told K. (in Spanish) that I become more fluent after a couple of beers. She responded, “No. Tequila es mejor.” (Tequila is better.) J. caught that and responded, “Not at school!” I responded, “Al otro lado de la calle.” (Across the street!)
K. told (still in Spanish, then in English) how last May her mother had called the office to wish her a happy birthday. She was not in at the time, and the secretary spoke no Spanish, and her mother spoke no English. About that time, J. walked into the office, and tried to speak with her mother, but they couldn’t communicate. Next, S. walked in, and in a mixture of English, Spanish, and Italian, was finally able to let K’s mother know that she wasn’t there.
By this time, we were all laughing really hard at the story, the conversations, the struggling, and M.’s reluctance to ever follow S. to do anything again. It was a lot of fun.
I don’t know about the others, but it was a great confidence builder for me. It was equalizing. Here I was in a room with three of my four professors this semester, and I was more comfortable with the subject matter than they. Our roles were reversed; I was instructing and they were learning.
And I continue to learn about self-image and the walls we build around ourselves. I don’t see myself as a person with a lot of walls, yet just last week I declined informing some folks looking for speakers of languages other than English that I knew Spanish. I know there are better speakers than I on campus, and I lack the confidence to place myself in the role of a translator. Maybe I need to reconsider. Perhaps I need to see it as an opportunity to hone my skills further. Maybe I need to take a little journey outside of my comfort zone.