First Words

3 March 2019

Since I’ve always been known as “that shy kid” and “the girl who never talks”, I’m not sure what was going through my mind when I decided that I wanted to speak a different language fluently. Maybe this life-changing epiphany struck me as I was staring blankly at some thought-provoking question—what are you passionate about? Or maybe I was admiring the cadence of a woman’s voice on the Spanish news one day as I flipped channels on the television. But somehow, I decided that this is what I want to do.

A friend of mine, who is from Colombia, found this hilarious. He said, “It’s good that you’re learning Spanish…but you don’t even speak English!” I guess that’s true. It’s hard for me to talk to new people. Sometimes I am self-conscious and am worried I may sound stupid or that someone might make fun of how I pronounce certain words.

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But now that I’m starting to speak Spanish, the only thing I can do is accept that I definitely sound stupid and people definitely will make fun of how I pronounce certain words. The other day, I tried to be funny in class (a word of advice—don’t try being funny in Spanish class) by saying “the bunny is terrorizing”. My teacher stared at me, puzzled, and that’s when it dawned on me that I had just said, “the bunny is landing”. And that story does not even compare to the one when I incorrectly conjugated a verb in freshman year and accidentally swore.

When you’re learning a language, there is no way to avoid mistakes. I suppose you can study for a Spanish test using all of the test-taking strategies your high school teachers have been training you to use and get a perfect score. But in the real world, when you’re dumped in a room full of native Spanish-speakers, you don’t know anything. You are yet again a baby learning her first words. Thankfully, most native-speakers are patient and excited that I am willing to learn their language, even if they do laugh at me.

At times, I do—and will—fail. That is scary. It’s also scary that I know that the only way to learn how to speak another language fluently is to immerse myself in it, to roll around in the accent and the culture and essentially, jump into the unknown. I am yet again a baby learning my first words. I am just “that shy kid” and “the girl who never talks”, but somehow I will learn how to swim in these new waters of a different language.

Learning Spanish (and since I have discovered my passion for language, also learning Italian) is opening an entire world for me—literally. George R. R. Martin once said that “a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies…the man who never reads lives only one.” Maybe, in that same way, a person that learns another language can live in two worlds at the same time, while a person that only knows one language can only live in one. There are about 500 million Spanish speakers in the world. Learning Spanish means that there are about 500 million more people that I can talk to, whose stories I can hear, and whose perspectives I can see.

So as I walk down the streets of the neighborhood nicknamed “Little Lima”, or order “un plato de comida tipica” at the Mexican restaurant, I jump into my new skin. I roll all my R’s no matter how ridiculous I might seem. I try to understand the families speaking to each other in their native tongue. I am not so quick to change the channel from Univision to News 12 anymore.

No matter how ironic it is that I am learning Spanish when I don’t even speak English with confidence…I can’t worry about being quiet anymore. I have to speak. That is the only way I am going
to learn…by jumping into the unknown.

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