As a kid I figured that one day I would speak Spanish. I listened and understood much of what my parents and their friends were saying, and I studied dutifully in my Spanish classes in school. With the same surety that I would one day feel like an adult (PS, I don’t) I knew I would speak Spanish.
My father’s native language is Spanish and when my mom, brilliant and in love, started dating him at age 15 she just taught herself the language like the rest of us teach ourselves to jump rope. She doesn’t even have a gringa accent. She works in Peru and most people simply assume she’s from another Spanish-speaking country. My own acquisition of the language did not go quite so well.
When we moved to Brazil when I was 16 I learned my first Portuguese words in the airport passport control line, “bem vindo,” welcome. My Portuguese quickly outpaced my Spanish. Not only was I surrounded by it more than I had ever been with Spanish, but I really loved it.
I wanted to love Spanish. I thought I did, or could. But it wasn’t love, just grasping at something that I thought was supposed to be my cultural birthright, the life raft that would float me through the sea of pale Texan faces where I did not belong.
Not that I belonged in Brazil. My social stiffness stateside doesn’t go away when I go south of the border. It might even be worse in Brazil, where my natural demeanor is in stark contrast to the culture of rhythm and music and warmth. I am not white, Anglo-Saxon, or Protestant but I am as priggish as they come (I mean honestly, who uses the word “priggish”?!)
But something about Brazil hugged me close and murmured words into my ear that I wanted to understand and speak back. I studied Portuguese and just reveled in the cadence of it, which seemed intuitive to me. The more I learned, the more comfortable I was making mistakes and asking people to explain things to me that I did not understand. Why waste time being a shy perfectionist when there is communicating to be done?
Last week I went to Peru. It has been a decade since I studied Spanish and almost as long since I attempted to speak it. And lo and behold, I can understand airline instructions! Ask for directions! Carry on a conversation for over a half hour with a random stranger! Negotiate my way through a clotted airport line to make my flight on time! My Spanish was slow, shaken painstakingly from my brain like so many grains of sand found tucked into every conceivable crevice after a day at the beach, but it was there.
It was comforting to know that even after I had abandoned it like an ungrateful child, Spanish still lingered in my mind, waiting calmly and patiently to serve the marvelous purpose of sharing thoughts with other people.
I had always wanted to speak Spanish because I thought it would give me something. But over the last decade I’d experienced what it was to enjoy another language, to just try (sometimes in awkward tenses and misplaced nouns) to share thoughts with another person without worrying whether or not I sounded smart enough.
I won’t ever speak Spanish fluently. But that doesn’t really matter to me so much these days. As a kid I thought Spanish would solve problems for me by bestowing me with an established cultural history and ethnic identity. I thought it would be “cool” to speak another language. I thought the speaking of a foreign tongue would imbue me with a magical confidence in myself that I did not yet possess.
But that isn’t really the point, is it? Knowledge and new abilities are not neat tricks that you perform for personal glory. Our perceived skills are not anywhere near as important as the heart and motive we bring to our actions. It is more important to reach out with what we do know than it is to scheme for the personal satisfaction of knowing even more.
My adventure into my long-lost friend Spanish was fun and peaceful. It felt grown-up. I am confident in my ability to do what I can do, confident in my understanding of what I cannot. I am grateful for the former, I am grateful for the latter.