Our Journey to Speaking Spanish

Cartagena, Colombia - August 2018

Cartagena, Colombia - August 2018

I recall the first time when I was a young girl that I heard someone speaking another language. It confounded me. How is that possible? How could someone speak another language? Aren’t we all trying to say the same thing? Why do we not all speak the same language? I didn’t understand. 

Ballet class was my first opportunity to learn another language. I was five years old, standing on a plastic dot and every time the teacher said, “Plié” I would bend my knees. She would say, “What does plié mean?” And we would - in our 5-year-old voices - scream back, “TO BEND!” 

When I was old enough to receive the right to register for a foreign language in school, I couldn’t register fast enough! I was a Freshman in high school. Spanish was my first class after lunch, and I felt that was perfect! I’d be hydrated, reenergized and ready to learn a new language. 

My first day, we chose our Spanish names and went around the room introducing ourselves. 

“Me llamo Chavela,” I said with far more excitement than confidence. 

My early Spanish days felt simple and I thrived. Count to ten? No problem. I could do that before I started class. Count to 100? Easy. Days of the week? Sure thing. Months? Seasons? Colors? Cake. 

I aced all of my point-and-identify tests, and I was hungry for more. 

Conjugating verbs came into life at just the right time. I was ready for the challenge, and I would speed through those exercises as if I were running a timed mile, then slam my pencil down like I was a comedian dropping a microphone after a successful standup. Thank you, thank you; I’m here all week! 

The first verbs I learned, and I’m still very fond of them, were “ser” and “estar.” The philosophy behind these verbs intrigued me; “ser” being used when discussing permanency and “estar” being used for anything non-permenant, or temporary. The decision seemed powerful to me. I was 14 years old and I was given the language-right to decide what was permanent and temporary in my life.

Soy de Virginia. Estoy una peliroja. 

My teacher soon felt I was ready for the next step: conjugating irregular verbs rocked my world. It threw a speed bump into my speed. They seemed so annoyingly carefree. Seriously, who decided to take a verb like “ir” and use it as “voy” or “fuiste” in a sentence? Was it a mistake from someone who was speaking too fast or unclearly one day? Did it just fall out of their mouths and everyone who heard it agreed? Oh yeah, that’s it. Write it down. 

As Chavela, I made my way through Spanish 101. 

Gabriela was the next Spanish name I chose, and I moved onward to Spanish 102. It was here that I began writing and speaking sentences in Spanish. I could pronounce the Spanish vowels and recite the alphabet with little to no problem (I couldn’t roll my Rs, however). I had around 30 Spanish verbs in my toolbox along with decent and somewhat speedy conjugating skills. I knew around 100 Spanish nouns and adjectives, and I had a pretty solid handle on masculine and feminine. 

It was time for the demonstrative adjectives, possessive adjectives, demonstrative pronouns, possessive pronouns and personal pronouns. Things got murky, but I (as Gabriela) made it through and by the end of 102, I was reading and writing paragraphs in Spanish pretty well. My speaking, however, was labored and slow, and I hindered myself. I was mortified by the idea of being disrespectful of the language, so I set an unforgiving standard for myself: Don’t speak aloud until you know you’re doing it properly. 

This unreasonable rule followed me into college where I declared the English language and writing as my area of studies. To receive a degree in any language required of the student to study another language simultaneously in an effort to expand the student’s knowledge and experience of how languages work, organize themselves and express ideas, concepts and feelings. I, once again, excitedly registered for Spanish and the placement exam pegged me for Spanish 201 my Freshman year of college. 

I bought the books, I selected my outfit, and I began my freshman year of college motivated to achieve fluency

I have to stop here. Fluency in Spanish has been this effervescent and ethereal dream (all of the English words beginning in E that mean floating somewhere beyond my reach and always disappearing!) I was a motivated, straight-A student. I did all of my homework, I made flashcards of Spanish vocabulary, and I actually found conjugating verbs fun, but I for some reason was denied something I so badly wanted: fluency in Spanish. 

My Spanish reading improved greatly as we read poetry and even literature in Spanish. I could look at a newspaper in Spanish or hear song lyrics in Spanish and get the gist of what they were saying. That felt good. I enjoyed Paublo Neruda, Laura Esquivel, Juan Meléndez Valdés, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Miguel Hernández, and Cristina Fernández. But when it came time for my final exam which included an oral component, I struggled. I recall the somewhat disappointed face of my professor as I stammered through the exam, clumsy and sporadic. I left that exam feeling ashamed. I received a B+ but I recall feeling my rule of “don’t speak aloud until you know you’re doing it properly” solidify like a locked fortress inside of me. 

Per the requirements of my degree, I finished at Spanish 205 with poetry and literature and limited speaking ability. My life went onward and, unfortunately, didn’t include Spanish. 

Then, in March 2018 we dropped the anchor of our sailboat into the muddy, dark-clayed earth of the Dominican Republic. My Spanish slowly began to creep itself back into my memory. 

“Cuánto tiempo te vas a quedar aquí?” The man in the immigration office asked. We were in an office the size of a closet. He used his personal cellular phone to capture an image of our passport and wrote down our names and passport numbers in the kind of black-and-white composition notebook you purchase in drug stores. 

Without hesitation and from somewhere hidden within me I said, “dos semanas.” 

“Ahh!” His eyes perked up. “Hablas Español!” 

I laughed, mostly at myself because I didn’t know how I understood him or where that came from, but I answered the question and moved the conversation forward in Spanish! Thank you, thank you; I’m here all week! Well, two weeks actually. 

Upon leaving the office, I asked a small child on a bicycle for a “tienda de libras,” and he nodded his head, placed his small feed firmly on his bike pedals and with the speed and spirit of a carefree child, I went running after him through the streets of Dominican Republic until we arrived at a small store covered with a tarp for a ceiling that sold books. 

“Vendes un diccionario? Ingles y Español?” I asked. He nodded and handed over a small, red pocket dictionary. I handed over 300 pesos and opened the pages. 

The verbs, nouns, adjectives, demonstrative adjectives, possessive adjectives, demonstrative pronouns, possessive pronouns and personal pronouns floated off the pages and back into my heart and mind. I smiled, thanked him, and made my way back to our sailboat home to study. 

We made our way through the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico before arriving in Colombia. Through each Spanish-speaking country, I felt as though I was unpacking precious belongings from a dusty box. I’d pull one item out at a time, dust it off, and place it carefully back into use. My fear of speaking, however, still plagued me. 

Then, we met our Brazilian friends floating on a mooring one day in Boanire, Dutch Antilles. They speak Portuguese, Spanish and English. One day, while sipping on agua con gas in the shade for relief from the sun she said, “I don’t speak English perfect. But you understand me, and you appreciate that I try.” 

I had never thought of it this way before. I do appreciate that she tries! I had a new lifelong friend because she tried and continues to try, and I so badly want to speak to her and understand her that I don’t mind if the grammar isn’t perfect. The message is sent and received; the conversation and thus the friendship moves forward. I swallowed my gulp of agua con gas. I knew what this meant. It was time for me to break the unreasonable rule I set for myself when I was 14 years old and start trying to speak Spanish. 

So, here I begin. I registered for classes at Centro Catalina and I begin on Monday. I am leaving my ridiculous rule behind. I am leaving unreasonably harsh expectations for myself behind, and I will try no matter how embarrassed or silly I may feel because this is important to me and this is my opportunity to add on to who I am and what I am capable of doing in this world. 


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