My Journey to Learning Spanish

When I start speaking Spanish, a lot of people are actually amazed. They wonder if my parents speak Spanish at home or if I grew up speaking Spanish. Or they want to know if I somehow have Spanish/Latino ancestry.

I speak Spanish with a slight gringo accent, although probably less of a gringo accent than most gringos or most other people who have learned Spanish as a second language. I have spent a lot of time working in Spanish speaking environments and talking to my Mexican boyfriend in Spanish!

But the reason why I decided to learn Spanish is also the beginning of the long story as to why and how I became a translator, so I thought I would share my original motivation to learn another language.

It all started at the ripe age of 19, when on somewhat of a whim my best friend from Ukraine and I decided to take a trip to Europe. I had first met her during early adolescence when she came to live in the United States, and neither of us had seen Western Europe.

So, unaware of the many things that could go wrong and completely oblivious of our lack of world knowledge, we ventured off to the first country of the trip – Spain!

Communication was indeed a struggle, although my friend at the time spoke more Spanish than I did. I don’t believe we were quite prepared to account for the amount of time we would spend being lost. We did manage to buy bus tickets and find our hotels/hostals and get around, but it wasn’t as easy as we had imagined. I always had the idea that Europe would be tourist friendly and English-speaking, after all, they receive a lot of tourists. But we certainly had our share of communication snafus (this is the first time I have ever written the word snafu – is it really a word???).

One of my first impressions and recollections of the trip was my utter amazement at the other young Europeans we met in the hostals. It seemed like almost everyone spoke at least two languages, and some up to three or four! I suppose it is a lot easier to travel and be exposed to different languages in Europe. The countries are smaller than the U.S., and obviously it is easier and cheaper to travel to a foreign country for most Europeans than it is for U.S. citizens to travel. I do think geography plays a part, but I still couldn’t help but feel far, far behind my international peers who were multilingual, cosmopolitan, and well-educated.

What also defined that trip was the onslaught. And by onslaught I mean that after the courteous, “Hi, my name is… and what about you?” there it came – the onslaught! An onslaught of questioning and further questions before fully being able to phrase and communicate my unseemingly unsatisfying answers to their questions. At the time the Iraq war had been going on for several years (~2 years), and George W. Bush was in office. Thus, everyone wanted to immediately know my stance on war and instantly disparage me for my countrymen and war and the sins of my ancestors.

At first it seemed quite curt to me that people had barely asked for my name and were then suddenly demanding to know my stance on war and expecting me to beg for forgiveness. After a time, I actually began to welcome their openness and willingness to discuss world issues and politics. My friend caught on quite quickly, but she was able to play the I’m from Ukraine card and be the cute one from Eastern Europe, thereby avoiding the onslaught (I still haven’t quite forgiven her).

So one of the things that I vowed upon returning from that trip was that I really wanted to learn another language. This to me was one more step towards becoming cosmopolitan, worldly, and educated. I wanted to communicate with others in my chosen language and bridge communication gaps. But I didn’t want to just learn a language, like in the sense of knowing how to order food and ask where the restroom is. I really wanted to immerse myself and become totally fluent in another language and culture.

I ended up picking Spanish, as I felt that it was the second most useful language following English in the United States. In the States we are located in a hemisphere of largely Spanish-speaking peoples, and it is the second-most spoken language after English in the U.S. itself. So, it just made sense. I also had a fascination with Latin American cultures, especially Mexican culture. I had taken several classes and learned a bit of the history, and I was especially interested in the ancient civilizations. It seemed like such a wondrous country of mystery – the Maya, tropical paradises, and rain forests… Day of the Dead! And I was missing out on all this for not speaking Spanish!

On a side note, my last reference to the abovementioned Europe trip is that another crisis moment struck when my friend and I decided to get churros with chocolate in Madrid, and my friend was unfortunately locked inside the bathroom of the establishment. I’m not sure what was more unfortunate – the fact that my poor friend was locked away all by herself in a foreign bathroom in a foreign country, or that I really had to go and was next in line… but either way, I panicked. Apparently the door knob from the inside of the bathroom where my friend was located had fallen off completely, yet the knob from the outside remained intact and locked.

My thought process went something like…

Okay, well… I have to go tell someone who works here. How the hell do you say doorknob? What is the gesture/hand signal for locked inside somewhere and can’t get out? Umm… crap.

Oh yes, many thoughts were going through my head. Apparently my friend had a metal spoon inside of her purse and was able to unjam the door with this metal object and get out safely, while I was nearby making weird gestures and hand signals to a waiter who thought I was just being an annoying American tourist. Thankfully, my friend had made a quick escape and was able to save me from continuing the embarrassing moment with the waiter. In the end, she credited her “Ukrainian resourcefulness, which involves carrying a spoon inside one’s purse at all times. This spoon also saved us on another occasion and came in handy for eating yogurt purchased at a supermarket.

But in any case, I was thoroughly convinced of the benefits of speaking another language. If anything, it is worth it for the rare moments when you are in a foreign country and your friend gets locked inside a bathroom. If you speak the language, you will have no trouble asking for help!

The following semester when the school year renewed I enrolled in Spanish 1A, the most basic of the basics. Although I can say that I honestly really enjoyed the classes, which I think was a huge part of my success in learning Spanish. I looked forward to the classes, participated, and really read and studied my homework. My other classes were necessary – I had to take them to get my degree. Yet Spanish was my fun class. For the last two years of college, I continuously took Spanish.

Like I said, to me the Spanish thing worked out because it wasn’t a chore. It wasn’t something I had to do, but something I did out of my own interest for the subject. I incorporated Spanish into my everyday routine. I would read all my news in Spanish in the morning on bccmundo.com, for at least 15-20 minutes. Interestingly, this habit stuck for good, and to this day almost 10 years later I still read the news in Spanish almost every day.

I became a fan of Spanish music and listened to Spanish radio when I was driving in my car. I watched all the Spanish movies that I could find with both English and Spanish subtitles. Interestingly, I found that there weren’t many Spanish blockbusters in comparison to English movies. Quickly, I made my way down the list of the most famous movies in Spanish.

I volunteered in Spanish speaking endeavors and participated in many volunteer trips to Mexico, even to the point where I began to translate and interpret for others who didn’t speak Spanish very well. Perhaps this is one benefit of living in San Diego. Although Tijuana has a bad reputation at times, living close to another country certainly represents an opportunity to gain foreign and international experience.

I read in Spanish. I am convinced that one of the things that has helped me improve my Spanish the most is reading, and above all, reading literature. As an anthropologist/natural resource specialist, my inclination was to read subject matter in my area. But literature and fiction really open up doors to new means of expression, new vocabulary, and new sentences structures, in a way that I would have never experienced if I had only focused on reading or learning academic texts.

At the end of the day, I credit my success in Spanish to my enjoyment of the language learning process and to my fascination with the cultures of Spanish speaking countries. Spanish was never an obligation to me, and that is why learning it became fun.

I don’t necessarily like pinning my Spanish abilities as a success, because I am sure, as anyone who has learned another language will know, there is always room to improve. Yet, it truly is one of my greatest accomplishments, because achieving fluency required a focused effort over a long period of time. It wasn’t something that happened overnight or very quickly at all but rather had become part of my daily routine and my long-term goals. It also certainly helped that my interests and Spanish skills lead me to other opportunities to study and work in Mexico.

If I were to give advice for language learners, perhaps it would be as simple as what I have already wrote. Try to enjoy the language learning process and find ways to incorporate your new language into your everyday life.

When I became a translator, it was just an extension of my talents and interests. It was a way to combine my writing skills with my language skills and my areas of study.

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