Tag Archives: language

Spanish, Service & Switching Places

301645_10150425046621215_890517333_nA few years ago, when I lived in Spain, I went on a weekend trip to Extremadura, which is basically a lot of desert and a few Roman ruins.  It was a school-sponsored trip, so our accommodations were classed-up considerably from the cheapest (safe) hostel we could find online, which is what we usually went for, to a formal hotel.

I don’t remember the exact problem or what caused it, but I had some kind of trouble with my room key.  Because of it, I couldn’t get in my room.  Exhasperated, tired, and hungry, I complained to the guys from my school who were hanging out in the hallway.  One of them cut me off and impatiently told me to go down to the front desk, “You’re not shy, and you speak Spanish fine.  What’s the problem?”

could speak Spanish, but I only liked to use it around people I knew well.  I knew I didn’t speak it flawlessly, and I was afraid of sounding stupid–especially at the concierge’s desk in a fancy hotel.  I hated that I couldn’t get my thoughts and ideas out exactly right, so most of the time, I didn’t even try.

I’ve barely used the language at all since I returned to the US in the winter of 2011.

But Spanish has been on my mind lately.  I’ve taken to reading el mundo at lunch and started mentally walking through what a phone conversation would be like if a Spanish-speaking person called the church.

To that end, I’ve been waiting, hoping, thinking, planning, praying, but only sortof expecting to use it.

Today, I was talking to a woman at a big, annual church work day in apartment complex that needs some love.  I walked up to her because she was alone, and I like helping people feel part of the group.

We had a comfortable back-and-forth conversation, and eventually she told me about how she usually doesn’t like speaking in English.  She’s afraid she’ll mess up.  I thanked her for her willingness to converse with me, even though it was hard for her.

Then BOOM.  No fear.  No nerves.  No hesitancy.

I started talking to her in Spanish.

My new friend and I talked a little more about our families, and then we went our ways.  But while I was walking away, I realized that what had just happened was really, really good.  I’d voluntarily swapped places with someone who was uncomfortable by putting myself in the vulnerable position.

It was a discovery that became my MO for the rest of the day.  I asked a group of shy, little girls who would barely talk to me to help me with my Spanish, and by the end of the day, I had a long shadow that followed me everywhere.  All we talked about was Disney princesses and jump rope, but sometimes what you talk about matters a lot less than the time you spend together.

I grew-up doing the work day thing.  I know how to get work done, start a party with a bunch of kids, introduce myself to their parents, help make people feel comfortable, and seek Kingdom breakthrough with people who think that God would never do anything here.  It was awesome today, just like it always is.

But doing it in Spanish–woah, that’s new.

As an added appendice to this story–I so seriously should have gotten in an accident on the way home.  I didn’t see past Shirley’s head in the passenger seat and attempted turn directly into an oncoming car, but even though I was still pushing the gas pedal, the car didn’t get any faster.  In that split-second moment of “what just happened?,” I looked down at my dashboard.  The car had slipped into neutral (??!??); major, major accident averted.

Yeah, awesome day.


Almost a Fair Lady

I can speed talk, articulate, enunciate, and give speeches with the best of them (in English), but I don’t know if my mouth’s ever been so worn out as it is today.

I’ve read that the tongue is the strongest muscle in the body.  If that’s true, then my taking in and learning a language has had a serious affect on the physical fitness of my tongue.  Because while I most certainly talk, I say a lot less.

Sometimes you just know you’ve hit a new level in your language skills.  Today was one of those days.  I just didn’t shut up–all day.  Didn’t matter the topic.  It felt so great.

I felt completely like my normal self while speaking Spanish.  [Generally speaking,] there were no topics that came up where I had to alter what I was originally going to say  because I didn’t know a word.  I didn’t have to stop for a minute to think about how to say something.  It just all popped out.

After an early morning attempt to visit Congress that didn’t quite pan out and a notably fantastic lunch, I met a couple of girls (a Spaniard, Brit, and Pole) for coffee.

The mood was so lighthearted, and it felt like I had a never ending stream of stories, one-liners, and quiet antagonistic quips to egg them on.  It was so much fun.

Then, I talked with a German friend and another Spaniard for over two hours at dinner.

bad coffee + chocolate.

Eavesdropping and Motivation

Oh, geez, okay, you know it’s okay to believe people when they say your homework really is hard (as in it’s not just because my Spanish isn’t good) when Word’s Spanish dictionary doesn’t recognize multiple words in the question you are copying out of the textbook.

I love how I’m learning technical terms on the theory of law in Spanish before I even know what they mean in English.

tree at Yuste Monastery

On another note, tonight, we had a cocktail party with one of Wesleyan’s VPs and the director of the international studies office.  There were also former TAs, professors, alums in the crowd.

First of all, I would like to formally note how cool it is to be capable of eavesdropping in Spanish.  This is the antithesis of the feeling I had on that first day of school, when I walked in the building with a large crowd, and heard nothing but a jumble of noises, instead of voices.  Tonight, in a crowded backroom at a cafe in a nice, pretty historic part of town I haven’t spent much time in yet, I heard all kinds of conversations.

Secondly, I would like to note a little of what I heard.  The program director was standing behind me and speaking to a couple of young Spanish guys associated with Wesleyan, but I had no idea who they were.  He was explaining to them how, if a student is willing to branch out and find people here he or she is able to connect with,  a couple months really is enough to make a drastic difference in his or her language skills.  He used me as his example.  That made me feel really good.

I was thinking about that on the way home.  The same force in me that made my Spanish abilities more than triple in two months (a positive) is what drives me to, for example, obsess crazily over the law terms I don’t understand (a negative).

But here’s the kicker, I know that the same juice in me is creating both of those scenarios, which means I can control it.

This weekend, I forced myself to be more relaxed, keep things in perspective, and not go nuts over my difficult readings.  I didn’t let myself even crack the law book open until today, so I couldn’t think about it.  And I had a former student send me her notes, so I have something to look off of for the terms I don’t catch in that class.

I guess what I’m getting at, is that I’m learning to control what I can, let the rest go, and smile, keeping that mechanism that 180’d my language skills going, but just make sure it’s working for all the right things.

After all, I only have 8 weeks left.

landscape in Extremadura

When listening becomes passive

Went on an Intervarsity-esque fall retreat this weekend at Pinos Reales in San Martin Valdeiglesias.

Toah Nipi – the lake + bigger mountains – the grass + giant rocks
Michindoh – the bonfire – childproof landscape + sand.  

If you haven’t been to either of these iconic American summertime campgrounds, go, but in the meantime let this photo furnish your imagination.

I have a lot to say about this weekend. I have probably have six blog posts worth of notes on my ipod.  With the inevitable disorder of this coming week, maybe one or two will actually make it up here.  I’m still surprised by things that are culture-transcending (as in absolutely exactly the same) and then others that I thought would be and absolutely are not.

Biggest note from the weekend: a lot of (concentrated) Spanish still kills.  Saturday afternoon was almost reminiscent of how I felt about a week and a half into life in Madrid when I started hating the sound of every word.

Except this time, instead of just wanting to shut up and retreat, I was dying to talk.  I didn’t want to give up anymore.  I was listening to conversation that I was way too tired to really understand, but it was on a topic that I had a lot to say about.  I wanted to stay in the moment, and the only way I could force my mind to stay in Spanish mode was to talk.

Listening for long periods of time is the hardest, but it is getting considerably better.  Other things are too.  I can tell a huge difference in the speed and quality of my speech, and every time I write an email I don’t need to spend forever editing my grammar before I send it.

I used to have to think to listen and understand, but now I’m beginning to just listen.


I’m going to be a lawyer.

I don’t know what type of lawyer, but a lawyer nonetheless.  Whatever type I am, I’m going to help people, and not just clients.  I’m going to let the way I interact with everyone I meet in the workplace be a reflection of my character.   I’m going to recognize that how I respond to problems of all kinds be more important than whatever hiccup is disrupting my day.

And, someday, all this, here in Spain, is going to mean a lot.  Because someday, when I’m a bilingual lawyer, I’m going to be able to help somebody who otherwise wouldn’t have anyone.

to getting there...


I have the best family ever (both real and host)!

but it’s not even in Spanish

Tonight was the first time I went out to dinner without anyone who was fluent/close enough to fluent in Spanish.   I meant to go out with a larger group, but they never showed up.  I also realized that I had misread my own phone number so, no one had a way to really contact me even if they were trying.  It was getting late, so the friend I was with and I just decided to wing it.  We went on our own.

Can’t say it was a mistake, because it all worked out, but I did find it slightly ironic that we didn’t even end up at a restaurant where Spanish was the primary language.  The menu was definitely in Gallego (Official language of Galicia, which Santiago is in).  I had to smile when we sat down, because I have a limited enough food vocabulary in Spanish.  Trying to discern what  Gallego words were close enough to Spanish words that I knew was near impossible.  Thankfully, after I accidently tried to order a coke in English, the waiter brought me an English menu.

Today was the day for Gallego though.  We visited a museum on Galicia with our history professor, and all the descriptions of the exhibits were in Gallego.

3 staircase spiral in the museum

History and literature are our mandatory orientation classes that started on Monday.  Literature has been challenging, but I’m not worried.  I don’t like analyzing fictional texts in English, so, as you can imagine, doing it in Spanish is not fun.  I was really confused after the first day, so I over-prepped to a slightly ridiculous level for today’s class.  But I’m okay with that.  The extra practice was good for me.

I was buried too deep in the symbolism of oranges, winter, and death (fun, I know) to blog yesterday, but I wanted to say this so bad.  -I spent the afternoon chilling on the roof of a Cathedral celebrating its 800th anniversary this year (constructed 1075-1211).  The Camino de Santiago, the path that first connected the Iberian Pennisula with the rest of the continent leads right to its steps.

Where’s my Minnie ears?

I spent my 5th birthday at Disney World, and I remember it quite vividly.  Disney World.  Every little girl’s dream right?  I remember my dad hurting his back because he carried me as we ran all the way to Splash Mountain, swimming with my Papa at the hotel, and the phone call my parents arranged from Minnie Mouse welcoming me to Orlando.  But more than anything, I remember my Minnie hat (which by the way was way different/better quality in 1995 than the kind they have today.)

Anyways, despite loving everything, I was scared of every ride.  My dad always held me and, since I didn’t want my hat to fall off on the ride, I held Minnie.  By the end of the trip, poor Minnie’s ears were about rubbed to death, because I’d put the hat on my lap and run my fingers back and forth whenever I was nervous.

Today, I was walking around Tui (Spanish border city), and I realized that I was rubbing the cuff of my shorts just like I used to rub poor Minnie’s ears.  Just like Disney World everything is new and I was loving it, but I was nervous as all get out.  Figuring out why I was nervous went a long way though.

The program goes on a series of day trip excursions throughout the semester, and today was our first one.  The day started off with a tour of the Cathedral in Tui.  Unlike yesterday, I actually understood the talk there, which was great.  It was started in 1120 and finished in 1232.  It is unique because it was built while architecture was transforming.  It has Romantic and Gothic influences (I think).  The best part of the Cathedral was its view from the top, which overlooks a beautiful garden and view.

It was great, but about the time we left the Cathedral I was getting really frustrated with my language skills.  I realized that the reason I was having such a hard time was because all the students were speaking English.   It takes a lot of effort to think in Spanish, and when I hear English it’s like my brain has to reboot to Spanish.  Figuring that out helped me a lot.

The whole relaxation thing got a big boost at lunch, you know, since it was on top of a beautiful 18th century fort/mountain in Portugal.  

That's Spain in the background

A short while later we were off to a really tall mountain with a ridiculous view.  It was very frightening driving up it in a bus.  Once we got up a little bit, I stood up to look out the window on the other side, and I thought I was looking at clouds.  I leaned further and realized it wasn’t clouds, just the ocean and a lot of rocks that were many, many feet beneath me.  It was a huge cliff.

I asked a lot of questions about the history of the area while we were there, climbed around a bit, and had a good conversation with someone about all that we were seeing.  I really enjoyed the afternoon because I was able to prove to myself that I really do get this.

Later, we headed to Santa Tecla.  There were a bunch of ruins from were the Celtic men built small homes that they would stay in to protect their village from invaders, like the Vikings, which by the way, I thought was awesome.  I love going to historic places, but in the US it’s hard to go back so far in time.

It took us awhile to get out of Santa Tecla, but afterward we headed to Baiona.  This is the city Christopher Columbus set sail from and returned to.  Some people went swimming in front of a model of the Pinto (one of Columbus’s ships), but it was freezing water and I’ve been in the Atlantic Ocean before, so I skipped out. I headed with a group straight to dinner.  

Most important part of the evening, I had a real conversation with a couple of the guys who are showing us around here.  In one day, I went from totally blanking out whenever a native speaker addresses me to asking questions about local perspectives on history.  Score. I will undoubtedly blank out many more times, but I’ll get better with time.  If I keep on this this track, the hem on my shorts stands a better chance than poor Minnie’s ears 🙂