by Lori Zaino
I admired the colorful, crumbling buildings lining the streets of Old Havana as I chattered away in Spanish to my taxi driver. “¿Eres Española?” he asked me. Stunned — I laughed. He must be joking! Did the taxi drive think I was from Spain?
And then it hit me. After 15 years of blood, sweat and lágrimas, a Cuban local thought my language skills were so on point that I was actually a native Spanish speaker. This was one of the proudest moments I’ve had. All the hard work had been worth it. But this journey, though life-changing, hadn’t been easy.
My language learning experience began in middle school when I was dutifully required to take Spanish. The realization that learning a second language could change my life hit me during a school trip to Mexico in high school.
I was placed in a homestay program to live with a Mexican family while I studied Spanish. I expected to learn the language — but what I took away from the experience was so much more.
Pilar, the matriarch of the family would tell me stories of Cuernavaca’s history while I helped her chop chiles in the kitchen for dinner: enchiladas con salsa verde. Alvaro, the son, would take me salsa dancing with his friends, showing me how to perfectly blend tequila and Squirt during breaks from spinning around the dance floor. Carlos, the father, would walk me around the garden, slowly enunciating the names of his prized flowers and cactus in Spanish, making me repeat the names of the brightly colored buds and protruding spikes aloud until I could say them in my sleep. “No-pal. Li-ri-o.”
As I wandered the streets of Mexico City, I finally understood that learning Spanish was a way I could connect with the world on a deeper level — well beyond just the language itself, which was just the beginning. My life changed further when I eventually moved to Spain permanently, something that would have never been possible if I hadn’t pushed myself to learn Spanish.
(Photo of the palace in Madrid)
After I first moved to Spain, things weren’t as simple as I had hoped (you can read about my experience moving abroad here LINK). But after the first few years, I started to speak Spanish with more fluency, and it began to open my world up.
But when I met my husband, things really changed. J didn’t speak English very well so we had to communicate in Spanish. The novelty that we would have never connected had I not pushed myself to learn Spanish is not lost on me, even 12 years after we met.
As we began to date (not without some mishaps due to the language barrier — J was expecting to see me in front of the Westin Palace Hotel, while I impatiently stood outside the Palacio Real, Madrid’s Royal Palace waiting for him to show up), we learned from each other. I stopped taking things so seriously — after a few language blunders and the laughter that ensues afterward, you stop caring so much about what others think. And just as my Spanish improved, so did his English, because language learning goes both ways. Learning each other’s languages helped us connect in a truly deep and meaningful way.
And the World Opens Up
Now, fully immersed in J’s Spanish family, I’m able to absorb all of the culture and traditions and even the faintest nuances this language represents.
I love when my Spanish mother-in-law clicks her tongue at me every May and disapprovingly stares at my exposed ankles below my cuffed jeans at the first gleam of sunlight, saying, “Que veranillo estas” — this is her way of jesting me about looking summery when Spanish people don’t wear shorts until July. I was never religious, but I remembered to wish her well on her saint day (Santa Carmen on July 16), because I know how important that is to her.
I love the way it feels when I understand a joke in Spanish — and laugh! This represents something deeper than just getting the words: I now get the Spanish sense of humor, too. Likewise, I pat myself on the back when I manage to pick up traces of a conversation theme when a group of 20 Spanish people are talking over each other at a bar — a real feat. These things, though small and insignificant, are wins. They’ve helped my world view expand and my confidence grow.
But with Language Comes Responsibility
Of course, there are things I don’t love. My blood boils when Spanish people refer to most Asian races as Chino — Chinese. Or when a group of young policemen comment on the size of a girl’s behind. But at least now, I can correct those people. “No, he’s not Chinese. That person is from Japan. It is different.” Or give the policemen an icy glare as I walk by to let them know that I don’t stand for machismo.
For the good and the bad, I speak Spanish. And I am part of something now — something larger than I was part of when my world only included English. With language skills comes responsibility, something I never would have realized until I actually spoke another language.
But who cares about my world view expanding? Well, people who manage to see the world more globally are often more understanding and empathetic to other humans. I understand what it’s like to live in the US, and I understand what it’s like to live in Spain. Speaking a second language opens up the world and — and we become better people when we are deeply cognizant of how others different from ourselves see the world.
(photo of San Isidro)
The Journey Continues
Being able to absorb information about the country in which I was living made me feel as if I had doubled the size of my own life — now I had a life in English and one in Spanish. Double the joy, double the heartbreak, double the opportunities for growth. Imagine at age 24 to suddenly realize the limits of your own life had now expanded double their size. It showed me that opportunities are endless and even if my world once felt small, it’s never too late to grow it larger. Now that I’m working on Italian, there’s no limit in sight.
Whether you’re a total beginner or already have a grasp on another language — being bilingual can open everything. You may end up with a new career, novel friendship or living in another country. Or maybe, you’ll just see the world in a new, larger-than-life way, ultimately making you a better person — and the world a better place.