Thursday, July 25, 2013

Hablo español

Grandpa Z, the missionary, the preacher, the reason I've wanted to learn Spanish most of my life
Most people probably don't know that I minored in Spanish. I studied the language for seven years. Probably longer if you count what I'd learned before it was offered in school.

My aunt taught me my first words in Spanish. I was about ten or eleven when she taught me the Spanish version of the Sunday school song "I've Got the Joy." My grandparents were Wycliffe missionaries in Ecuador when their children were young. In fact my uncle was born there, so he likes to tell me he's my Ecuadorian uncle. And since children typically pick up on language easier than adults, Grandpa says he used to take my dad with him to meetings with important tribal leaders to help with translation.

I also had an English teacher in Georgia who at the end of the year must have been so sick of attempting to teach middle school students grammar that he decided to teach us basic conversational Spanish. It was a lot more fun than learning the parts of speech over and over again. And it made me want to learn more.

The thing is, even with all those years of studying, even in college, no matter how hard I studied, I have never been comfortable speaking Spanish. There have only ever been a few people who I was brave enough to attempt to speak Spanish in front of. People who I knew wouldn't laugh at my mistakes, because I knew I couldn't speak without making mistakes. Writing Spanish was easier in that I could look things up and think about it. Speaking is on your feet. You have to know. You can't pause and contemplate which way to conjugate the verb.  And so as long as I can remember, my mind goes blank when I'm supposed to speak Spanish.

In class the instructor would call on me, and for the first few minutes after she'd say my name, I'd think: "What does she want? I don't know Spanish. I can't think of a single Spanish word." There was one notorious presentation I had to give in an upper level class. I had prepared. I had notes and a power point. But my friends sat waiting, and waiting, and waiting. For the first five minutes of the presentation, I stumbled so much and moved so slowly they really didn't think I was going to make it through.

Somewhere in there I found my balance and I finished strong. When I sat back in my seat, one of my friends had tallied my "ums" and the other commented on how my face was a red as my sweater. The ironic thing about that presentation is that my professor referenced it when she miraculous allowed me to pass my oral examination required for the minor. She thought I'd done so well on the presentation that she claimed she knew I knew what I was doing.  Even then I wasn't so sure she was right.

But even with that minor, Spanish has never gotten easier for me. I still blank when someone asks me to speak in Spanish. I liken it to stage fright. I know Spanish. I can read and understand a lot of what I hear. But I could never claim fluency. And I obviously can't claim to speak the language.

Just a couple of weeks ago when I went to my cousin's wedding, my grandpa tried to have a conversation with me in Spanish. My grandpa. And the best I could muster was a pathetic form of Spanglish.

But yesterday. Yesterday was a different story. The phone rang at work. I answered as I usually do. The female voice on the other end of the line asked in clear English if I spoke Spanish. "A little," I replied with much hesitation. The voice on the other end of the line switched languages and started asking me questions in Spanish. And get this, I replied in Spanish.

It wasn't a long conversation. My Spanish was broken and probably full of my well-known "ums." But I answered all of her questions, and she only had to revert back to English once because I didn't understand the question.

When the conversation ended and I hung up the phone, I was in a little bit of shock. My heart rate had risen as it does in panic mode, but this time, my mind didn't blank. Thinking back on that conversation, I realize I was listening and answering in Spanish. I wasn't translating to English in my head. I actually had a conversation in Spanish. It was a small milestone in my journey to actually speak Spanish some day.

But I'm wondering, am I the only one who, no matter how well I know a subject, blanks when put on the spot? Or are there others out there like me?


  1. I am so proud of you! I have never been fluent in any language (probably not even proper English!) so I can't compare experiences but I do know how awesome you are. Have confidence you know your stuff! Thank you for continuing to share your journey with me!

    1. I wondered if you knew that I remembered when you taught us that song. It's been since then that I wanted to learn Spanish. So even if you've never been fluent, you really started it all.

  2. That's terrific. Being here and seeing how difficult it is to live in a country where you don't know the language gives me an whole new appreciation.

    1. I bet it's something to hear so many different languages being spoken. Of course to not understand any of them might be unsettling.

  3. Miss Shelby, I could have written this post. I feel the same way and have the same experiences when it comes to Spanish. (And I lived in Spain for five months.) Maybe Remington and I will start learning together.

    1. I had no idea you lived in Spain, Nike. I've dreamed of such an experience for years. I have a friend who grew up in a bilingual household, and she too does not like to speak the language. Entire conversations occur in which someone is speaking Spanish and she replies in English.