We walked into our first day of Spanish language school not knowing what to expect. We sat down in narrow desks, waiting for our first instructor. With her long hair pulled back, she smiled kindly at us. I would later learn she was the age of my youngest sister. With that, we opened our books and began class.
For the next hour, not a word in English was spoken. We reviewed basic concepts in Spanish; letters, numbers, nationalies, food. All instructions, all discussions were in Spanish. I left the first class with my head spinning. Now only four more hours of class where I barely understand anything.
A sinking feeling began to crawl inside me as to whether we’d made a mistake with the first month of our trip. We had signed up to take 25 hours a week of Spanish, split between 3 hours of group classes and 2 hours of private tutoring. For 4 whole weeks.
I suppose this feeling started to form the evening before when we arrived in Querétaro, Mexico. Our host mother welcomed us into her home and offered to walk us to dinner. She spoke in English and in Spanish, but I could barely decipher any Spanish words she said. I could feel myself becoming shier, less confident, and increasingly uncomfortable. I tried telling myself I would feel better after classes. I will learn more Spanish, and, perhaps, this all would be less overwhelming.
Five hours of completely-in-Spanish classes didn’t exactly do the trick. I hadn’t given the mechanics of the classes much though. Naively, I assumed the classes would involve some combination of English and Spanish like it did in our high school and university language classes. Your teacher would discuss something something in Spanish, and if you didn’t understand it, we might review important parts in English. Of course, that’s how it always works, right?
I’m glad I was wrong. As you can imagine, I didn’t understand much the first, second, or even the third class. But little by little, I began remembering words and phrases, slowly piecing together the conversation from our classes. I also learned, in a rudimentary and grammatically-tangled way, how to articulate my questions. I can do this now with enough accuracy so my teachers can explain the concept in a different way—all in Spanish. To say this process has been a fascinating evolution would be an understatement. To observe the process, and be a part of it, has already proven to be such an important experience.
Lane and I were born with enormous privilege. As an native English speakers, we can only benefit from learning another language. There isn’t much cost to us if we didn’t learn Spanish. I could easily return to the comfort of my language in my home country or travel solely relying on other people’s ability to speak my language. This is not what language learning looks like for most people. For many around the world, learning English can be imperative for reaching higher levels of economic security. Learning English means access to more opportunities and a limit of opportunities in its absence. As my host sister said, learning English opened her up to the world. She was able to partake and enjoy art and culture and access countless resources for learning about the world.
At first, I felt my personality and my opinions sinking beneath the surface as I worried about how to communicate. I didn’t want to smile too much or show to much emotion because I feared misunderstanding and misreading body language without a way to explain myself. It seems easiest to try to be quiet, take up less space, and be less myself. And, of course, there’s the ever-present concern of appearing stupid to everyone around you. I don’t react appropriately, I can barely understand simple sentences, and can’t respond in an intelligible way, so that must be the conclusion. To even begin to learn a language, to feel a sliver of these feelings of isolation and confusion, has proved to be very moving for me. No matter how much Spanish I learn, I appreciate the new level of empathy for a very common, but often trivialized, human experience.
As our second week of Spanish classes came to a close, I’m content with the progress I’ve made so far. As overdone as it sounds, I’ve learned so much more than just Spanish the in the last several days. I’m excited to see how much we grow in the next two weeks of classes and the months and years of continued practice. I feel committed to language learning in a way I haven’t before. The beautiful words of Nelson Mandela ring even truer to me today,
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.