In the way of many smarmy American schoolchildren, unappreciatively advantaged by the breadth of offerings of good well-districted public schools, I took Spanish every year from the seventh grade until my freshman year of college. In the middle of those years, when I was about thirteen, my family spent a stint in Puerto Rico. Throughout my childhood, and even now, I’ve had friends from Mexico and Columbia. Sometimes, also, I eat tapas.
And, yet, I don’t know Spanish.
How did this happen? How could I have spent hundreds, probably thousands of hours “learning” a language—even, at times, being surrounded by it—and still have so small a knowledge of it?
It’s not that I wasn’t paying attention. It’s not that I wasn’t doing the proper memorization. The problem is not even, primarily, that I didn’t use it, as is the common critique.
The real issue, as I think about it now, is this: I didn’t care about learning Spanish.
This is, of course, a source of gnawing embarrassment and regret for me now. I had ample opportunity to learn, maintain, and grow my language skills, but, quite simply, it wasn’t a priority. There was nothing deliberate about my being poor at Spanish. Senor Hill and Senorita Boes did everything they could for me. But I didn’t feel the gravity of it, didn’t hear the language for the lyrics, didn’t understand. El Norte didn’t take. The rrs didn’t roll. Buena Vista Social Club, remarkably, didn’t move me, or perhaps I didn’t let it. I never said to myself, “Hmm, you should really strive for shamefully mediocre bilingualism.” It just happened.
This deficiency has been brought home to me lately, since I’ve started interacting regularly with a few people at work whose preferred language is Spanish. We exchange the basic pleasantries and maybe a sentence or two more, but after that I don’t catch much. What I can glean from them, and from the guys on the train, and from the fùtbol commentators, and from the Spanish-language soap operas I’m dying to watch, can hardly be considered comprehension.
I’m collecting linguistic dross. I should be banking in colloquial gold.
And now—now that I’m an adult, now that I really do care about being able to speak to and understand people in their native tongue—I realize the birdbrained and prohibiting void of this privation.
I realize I could know a thing that opens up and emboldens the circumnavigation of a wide new world, but I don’t.
I realize I could communicate, correspond, connect, relate and be related to, but I can’t.
How many if only moments one life holds!
This is not to say that I cannot become better at Spanish going forward; I can. Old dogs can learn new tricks, though slowly, though poorly. This canine still has years to go.
This is not to say the chance is gone. It’s only to say I’ve already had years and years of chances, years and years to master it, years and years to become a jedi of the lingual Force, but somehow didn’t, somehow am still a syntactical joven, a phonemic padawan. And now many of those simple, obligatory, free opportunities are no longer available to me.
And all of this makes me wonder another thing. It makes me wonder what I’m “learning” right now that, if I really put some thought and effort into it, would serve me and others well in the future. It makes me wonder what opportunities I’m neglecting today, what languages I’m forgoing and quarries I’m passing by, that if I approached them with a truer, greater care, I might speak them unto fluency, I might mine them to the bitter, gleaming core.
After a few years spent correcting grammatical errors and writing subtle, clever headlines in a Chicago newsroom, Griffin Paul Jackson (’11) now does aid work with refugees in Lebanon. He writes about that, God, and, when the muse descends, Icelandic sheep. Read him here: griffinpauljackson.com.