When I was in high school (way back in the last century), kids planning to go to college were encouraged to take two years of a foreign language. I took Spanish my junior and senior years.
In college, I think I took four semesters of Spanish, although I can only recall two of my instructors, a woman with blond curly hair and a mean old lady from Cuba.
I got As and Bs in my Spanish classes, mostly because I was able to learn the grammar and do well on tests. I hated speaking out loud in class. My accent was horrible, and my brain was terribly slow at figuring out what I wanted to say, remembering the correct words, conjugating the verbs, and getting the articles right. It was frustrating to know three-year-old kids in Mexico City and Madrid spoke better Spanish than I did.
Many years later, when I was in my mid-30s, I attended free Spanish classes taught by an American university student who was fluent in the language and had been to Latin America several times. In a room full of Midwesterners in their 20s who’d never learned a single word of Spanish, I was the star pupil, but my accent was still horrible and my slow brain kept my speech halting.
I hadn’t studied Spanish in years when I met Miz T, an American woman who spoke English as her native tongue, but had been studying and speaking Spanish for several decades. The next summer, Miz T and I befriended two Guatemalan sisters. The sisters spoke limited English (which was better than my limited Spanish), but when I wanted to communicate something complicated to either of them, I had to get Miz T to translate for me. I practiced my limited Spanish with Miz T and the Guatemalan sisters, but I made mistakes all the time.
One time I tried to tell one of the sisters that I had Miz T’s birthday card for her to sign. Instead of saying tengo la tarjecta, (I have the card), I told her that she had the card (tiene la tarjeta). Actually, I told her she had la carta, which is a playing card. She must have been really confused.
Yo quiero hablar español con mi amigas de Guatemala.
(I want to speak Spanish with my girlfriends from Guatemala.)
When I migrated to warmer lands last winter, Miz T let me take some of her Spanish lesson CDs. Each lesson only lasts half an hour. At first I diligently did a lesson every day. I had a lot of free time, and it was easy to keep up. Then I went to the city, the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, back to the city. I got busy working and playing, and my Spanish lessons were the first (self-imposed) obligation I let slip away.
When I got out to the woods, I barely thought about studying Spanish. I had nowhere to plug in my laptop, so I didn’t use it to do my lessons. I tried to write a letter in Spanish to Miz T and the sisters, but my vocabulary was lacking. I didn’t know important words like trees (arboles), mountain (montaña), or chipmunk (ardilla). One day I bought a small Spanish-English dictionary for ten cents at a thrift store, and I was back on the Spanish train, doing my lessons everyday (for at least a week).
One morning when I emerged from my van, I found campers who’d arrived in the night. As I spoke with them, I realized English was not their native (or primary) language. They were Spanish speakers.
When I explained the fees to one guy ($20 per night for camping, $7 per night for the extra vehicle), he looked confused. I slowed down and explained again, then decided to use a little of my Spanish language knowledge. I meant to ask Entiende? (Do you understand?). I realized ten minutes later that I’d asked Entiendo? (Do I understand?) I bet the camper was thinking Espero que entiende, gringa! (I hope you understand, white lady!)
Perdon. Necesito estudiar español ahora.
(Excuse me. I need to study Spanish now.)