This is My Brain on Spanish: Learning Language as an Adult

I am sitting in a nail salon in Oaxaca. Carmen, the young manicurist sporting a black t-shirt with a white skull and the words “NEW YORK NEW YORK”, smiles at me hopefully. This, I think, is the test of my Spanish learning so far: nail salon chit-chat. I’m not that good at it in English and for some reason, the thought of it is more anxiety-producing than conjugating verbs. How do I make small talk with a twenty-year old in Spanish? “Just go for it,” I think to myself, “it’s not an exam.” And soon enough, Carmen and I are chatting about our families, our work and gel colors. I learn the words for cuticle (cutícula) and “take your hands out when it beeps” (saque los manos cuando suene).

I’ve just completed Week 2 of a three-week immersion at the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca. Oaxaca is full Americans — many retired, many studying Spanish, many artists, some spending weeks and months and returning annually. The ICO is housed in a leafy school compound with the feel of a colonial hacienda, framed by shaded patios and abundant tropical plants.

If learning new things is a way to stave off senility, if nothing else, I will keep my marbles for a while longer. In Spanish, the word for puzzle is rompecabezas which literally means “head-breaker”. It’s an apt word for learning a new language as an adult. I envy children learning a new language — they imitate, absorb, charge ahead without fear. Adults approach it like solving a jigsaw puzzle, put the blue pieces over here, the red ones over there, and eventually you will have a picture. We try to discern patterns and solve a problem.

For many English speakers, the patterns are challenging because we lack context, as if we are working on a jigsaw puzzle but don’t know what the final picture is supposed to look like. Take the subjunctive tense, for example. A verb tense that is essential to Spanish, yet is so bewildering to English speakers that many simply decide to ignore it. I’ve heard more than one person say “they understand what I’m saying without the subjunctive, so forget it”. True enough, just as I understand what someone means if they were to say “She have go yesterday.” But it’s incorrect.

Subjunctive is a verb tense that expresses uncertainty and doubt. But even that’s tricky. Take, for example, the concept of “although”, or aunque in Spanish. Seems pretty basic in English. In Spanish, the subjunctive tense often follows the proposition aunque, but you can’t get too comfortable with that rule. Sometimes you use the basic indicative tense, the one that beginning learners know. How do you know when to use one or the other? According to my worksheet of this week, the indicative is used “when the speaker knows that the fact is correct and wants to inform the listener” but the subjunctive is used “when the speaker knows that the fact is correct and is also known by the listener.” WHAT!? I have to know what the listener knows? HOW DO I KEEP THAT STRAIGHT?? AND EXPRESS IT IN VERB FORM??

My classmate Stephanie and I, both of us, shall we say, grey-haired, joke about losing our grip on English as well, when the Spanish rules seem impenetrable. And we are in the most advanced class at our school. We’re past conjugating verbs but we have not come close to mastering this nuance. Sometimes it seems that the better I speak Spanish, the farther away is the goal post of fluency. The acquisition of language moves in waves, sometimes rising rapidly, sometimes just spreading out along the shore. I imagine that as I sleep, my pages of vocabulary words and grammar will magically be absorbed into my brain cells. And still there are moments when I can converse with ease about complex subjects and moments when my mind goes completely blank.

Why do all this now? The more I travel, the more I realize how speaking English is a kind of privilege. Americans travel to foreign lands and expect the people there to speak English. Many do and many want to, the but the notion of it being an expectation outside of the USA seems funny. Oaxacans are gracious with the Americans here, many who stay for long periods and never learn Spanish well, far more gracious than we have been with Mexicans in America.

I initially came to learning Spanish from the other direction. I wanted to communicate with people in my own country who did not speak English. As the language began to reveal itself, so did cultures and literature and ways of life. If travel is fatal to prejudice, so does its companion — learning a new language — contain the same promise. My school in Oaxaca, is intent on making that so. We had a worksheet on “Stereotypes about Mexicans” as in, “Mexicans just eat tacos and burritos. True or False? Discuss.” En español.

In December 2018 I spent a week as a volunteer lawyer at the Dilley Detention Center in Texas, helping Central American migrant women with asylum petitions. I heard story after story of sadness and abuse. I learned to explain the asylum process in Spanish. Though I had the help of an interpreter, I understood much of the pain in the women’s native tongue. The ability to connect in Spanish made the process even more powerful and life-changing.I’m planning to go back to the border soon, to continue that work, and having this language in my hands will open more worlds of connection.

For my 17th birthday, in 1973, my mother gave me a bilingual edition of Pablo Neruda’s poetry.There’s her inscription inside, “And now for something a little more engaging.” It’s too late to ask her what she meant by that. But what I’d love to tell her is that now I can pick up that dog-eared book and read Neruda in his native tongue.

Urbanist who lives in the wilderness. Planner + Strategist. Real estate consultant to nonprofits. Attorney. Traveler (both near and far). Yoga teacher. Writer.

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