Saturday, October 12, 2013

How to learn a new language...

I don't know what my first word was.

If I wanted to know, I suppose my baby book would be a good place to look.

From past run-ins with that elusive tome (currently in attic-limbo) I know that the info is sketchy--the work of a harried care-giver with too much to do. I can relate. I have three small children, and I honestly don't know what their first words were. Early words, perhaps, but first words, no.

Like most of life, language is messy. My babies said lots of things that could have been interpreted as words--as any parent, I was delighted with each gurgle and each "word" was duly praised.

But the first actual communication? The first time a word was spoken with understanding to back it?

I got to thinking about this today in reference to my current progress with the Spanish language. I don't remember my first Spanish word either. Most likely, it was hola or uno in Mrs. Vales' first grade Spanish club. Middle and high school electives expanded my knowledge.

At the school where I now work, I am the only teacher with enough Spanish knowledge to teach a high school now I have two years of teaching Spanish under my belt.

All of that means very little. I can see the laughter in the eyes of my Dominican friends when I tell them I teach Spanish. We all know the absurdity of it. Hours of textbooks and Rosetta Stone have not made me bilingual. But with toddler-like glee, I am always happy to flex my growing vocabulary when I hit the ground in a Latin country.

Unlike my English vocabulary, there are many words whose acquisition I can distinctly remember. These words aren't flat on a page; they are flesh and blood, moments lived, and hands held.

Uva, for example. Do you know that one?? It means grape. I learned it walking through the dusty streets of Las Colinas, relishing the tangy sweetness of an only-in-the-DR grape soda with a loaf of pan from the little bakery across the street.

Juntos...useful when you want to cram as many faces as you can in front of the lens of a camera. It means together.

My favorites might be words of praise, like preciosa or linda--beautiful. Coincidentally, Linda is the name of the cat belonging to my Dominican sponsored child, Jeffry. These words pour out when I am looking into a pair of dark, sparkling eyes--eyes hungry for affection and affirmation.

Yo tengo hambre is forever linked with a pair of outstretched hands and a growling belly. I'm hungry...

Some words are a place. Esperanza, for example, means hope; but to me it also means a slum on a garbage dump in San Pedro de Macoris. It is a place my heart loves.
Other words are people. Luz is light. She was given the right name.
There are hard words that never quite fit well in my te extrano (I miss you).

Truth is spoken. "Dios me hizo especial." I heard it first shouted by 100 Honduran children. Amen! Indeed, God made me special.

Angel blanca...white angel...a blessing written for me by the mother of my precious sponsored daughter.

Te amo...I love you

My textbook taught me book, pen, chair, and door. It taught me man, woman, and child; but the professors who taught me the most have been friends--amigos.

Building relationships is an amazing way to learn a new language...and your new vocabulary might include a few words that only the heart can speak.


  1. I love this post! I also have so many memories associated with my Spanish vocabulary. I was blessed with the opportunity to start learning at a young age via the neighbors and so the words I learned there have no memories. But I remember words like "alabaré" (I will praise You!) from worshipping with my Argentine brothers and sisters in church and realizing for the first time how the future-tense actually worked! And learning the difference in "pecado" (sins) verses "picadura" (bug-bite) from Bolivian teens at a youth camp....they laughed hard at that mistake. It's such a beautiful thing to have these memories!

  2. What a great post! I have to admit that I was pretty excited that I understand every word or phrase you had written in Spanish. I was nearly fluent in Spanish in college, but haven't used it once since then. I'm glad to know the words are still floating around in my brain somewhere.

    Thank you for sharing your memories with us!