People are often surprised to learn that I am a pretty fluent Spanish speaker. Well, often is the wrong word. Because I don’t tell people all that much. I write songs and teach basic Spanish vocabulary to the four-year-olds at my school, but I don’t let that information slip out around peers very often. It’s not modesty or relevance that keeps me from opening up. It’s laziness.
Lots of friends of mine studied abroad in college. They immersed themselves in the culture and language of another country. Most commonly, my friends went to Spain or South America. When they meet native speakers (or even other second-language learners) their eyes light up. They become animated. They take on phony accents, whether making “Y” into “J” like in Mexico or affecting a lisp like in Barcelona. “¿Hablas español?” they ask with giddy enthusiasm.
I never studied abroad, but I was a Spanish minor in college. So my listening comprehension is strong. I can read and write the language pretty well given enough time to collect my thoughts. (But I guess so can enough monkeys with typewriters.) When I try to speak, though, there’s a little lag time. I haven’t had to extemporize in Spanish since college, so when I do, it’s like I took a three year vacation and then came home in the dead of winter and tried to start a car covered in snow with an empty tank of gas. I just pray it works.
Sometimes, for fun, I will order a burrito entirely in Spanish. I will fake an accent and smile as I ask for “carnitas con guacamole y salsa, por favor.” So really, my functional vocabulary has been reduced to things you put inside a tortilla, please, and thank you.
Last weekend, I was hanging out with a group of people including a friend of a friend named Francisco, who is a native speaker from either Columbia or Mexico (not ignorance on my part, I was given differing reports from different friends). As we left one bar and headed to the next, my girlfriend, smiling, said, “Oh, Francisco! Josh speaks Spanish, did you know?” She sold me out!
Immediately, Francisco’s smile broadened.
¿Sabes español? (You know Spanish?) He asked.
Un poquito. (A very little.) I replied. Soy avergonzado. (I’m embarrassed.) Which is true, but the real reason I said it was just to show that I know the difference between avergonzado the real word for embarrassed and embarazado which actually means pregnant.
Francisco laughed. He shook his head.
¡Ahora vamos a practicar! (Now we’re going to practice!) He enthused.
I shook my head too. I sighed.
Pues, practicamos. (Well, we’re practicing.) I said with a weak smile.
We chatted for a few minutes as we walked, and I picked my spots, circumlocuting any difficult words (like horizontal, for example, or circumlocution). And then as we reached our destination, I was relieved to hear Francisco shout: “Now we speak English!”
There’s a stereotype about people from the United States that they’re too lazy to inform themselves about world events and cultures. But I think my attitude is worse. Because I did all the work to get smarter, but I’m too lazy and stubborn to apply my knowledge. But, for ten glorious minutes last weekend, I was bilingual and multicultural and proud (mostly relieved, really) about it.
That night, I was not embarazado. (That means I didn’t get pregnant. Just thought you should know.)