Some people are haunted by loved ones. I was haunted by the Spanish language.
By Marie A Bailey
I’ve been haunted by the Spanish language all my life. It’s like a friendly ghost that follows me around, remaining just out of reach while making its presence known.
I took Spanish language classes in high school, but I never truly learned much Spanish aside from a few basic phrases you were likely to hear in movies of the Old West. I never had the motivation beyond getting a passing grade to learn.
It’s not as though I didn’t have opportunities beyond my classes. I grew up in a small rural community in upstate New York and our closest city — Amsterdam — had a sizable Puerto Rican population. But I was shy, introverted, and avoided anything outside my comfort zone. Yet, the ghost followed me around, showing up as the Puerto Rican boyfriend of one of my cousins, whispering to me when I browsed through stores in Amsterdam, teasing me with advertisements in Spanish on TV.
Then I moved to California when I was in my early twenties. There, I fell in love with a guy who told me on our first date that he was going to Ecuador as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Motivation set in. I took correspondence courses and conversation classes, thinking that learning Spanish would bring me closer to him. Then he invited me to Ecuador. I went. Let’s just say that three weeks of immersion didn’t lead to fluency. We traveled around the country by bus and taxi beginning and ending with Quito, the capital.
On one of our first few days in Quito, I tried shopping by myself. I wanted to buy yarn since I was (and am) an avid knitter. The best I could muster was, “Cuántos son?” My mind was blank when I tried to communicate, as if my own native language had left me. I bought some cheap acrylic yarn out of sheer embarrassment.
Later, in a small restaurant, I got the attention of one of the waitresses by calling out “Señora?” She threw me some shade. My boyfriend explained that if she was single, calling her Señora implied that I thought she was not a virgin. Oops. After that, every woman I met became “Señorita” no matter how ancient she looked.
We made a stop at Otavalo to attend the market where I hoped to finally get the yarn I so desired. Our hotel was in disarray: no hot water except for a couple of hours a day; no electricity. The town’s utilities were being upgraded, and the hotel clerk hoped that her grandchildren would get to enjoy the new amenities. I observed a hotel guest, speaking in slow but fluent Spanish, complain about her cold, damp room. I didn’t understand a word she said, and my boyfriend had to translate for me.
In Baños, people were very friendly, but after a few days I became fatigued by the persistent greetings: “Buenos días.” “Buenas tardes.” “Buenas noches.” Spanish, Spanish, Spanish, with occasionally some German thrown in by German tourists.
On a bus trip to Portoviejo, I almost got into a fight with a little boy who sat behind me and kept opening my window. After I had closed it for the umpteenth time, I finally propped my hand at the sill, preventing him from opening it again. “Señora!” His father finally intervened at that point, giving him a sugary treat that caused him to fall asleep ten minutes later.
Once we got to Portoviejo, the small town where my boyfriend worked, I resisted leaving the apartment. Culture shock, he called it. He experienced it himself, the fatigue of having to function in a language that he was still learning.
Before I came to Ecuador, I could say greetings in Spanish, ask how much something cost, and ask where the bathrooms were. When I left, I could say greetings in Spanish, ask how much something cost, and ask where the bathrooms were. I was so disappointed in my lack of growth, but years later I figured out that a big part of my problem was listening and speaking. If I was given Spanish text to read, I could figure it out. In an environment where one had to think fast and comprehend through all the different nuances of dialect and diction, I would fail.
A few years later, as a graduate student in English, I had a language requirement that I could fulfill by successfully completing a reading test. I elected to take the reading test in Spanish without any preparation. I failed, but only by a few points. I was so close and yet I hadn’t studied Spanish in years. Perhaps my Spanish language ghost was by my side during that test, but she wasn’t going to give me a pass.
Much later, as a literacy volunteer, I tutored a gentleman from Kenya in English. When I studied a bit of Swahili to make flash cards for him, I found myself lapsing into Spanish. As I became more interested in teaching English as a second language, my desire to master Spanish grew. Either that, or I was just finally giving in to my ghost.
Now, in my sixties, I’m studying Spanish again. I’ve married the Peace Corps Volunteer who will probably always understand Spanish better than me, even though he never uses it. The desire to learn for the sake of learning has never left me, just as that ghost has never left me.
I don’t have to leave the United States to find places to immerse myself in Spanish. Every day, immigrants and refugees from Spanish-speaking countries come to the United States, the land of the free. I want to welcome them in their own language while I teach them mine.
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