Aprender una Idioma (Learning a Language)


Upon arrival into this world, we cannot speak or use words, although we can communicate. Just like the tiny animals we are when exiting our mother’s womb, we scream, thrash our arms and kick our legs in hopes the world will understand. From that moment, our brains are sponges absorbing every tiny chord, vibration and action happening around us. We cannot understand the mysterious sound code, although we can hear everything- and this is the first step in learning a language.Through particular associations with our senses, by 11-12 months we can say single words and sentences by two years with what we have learned. We can string together our thoughts through words, and communicate on an basic level. As follows, we have language; the art of verbs, nouns, subjects, accents and tone that I simply cannot wrap my understanding around.

When I first arrived in Spain almost three months ago and stood in Madrid’s largest Plaza, the air around me was thick. It was painted with verbs I could not understand and sounds that were fresh to my ears. All around me, the base of understanding was shifted. The streets, the advertisements, the maps, all were in a language only four years of High School Spanish could comprehend.The words I read, the words I spoke did not have a home here. I traded having a voice that could deliver my thoughts and ears that could comprehend others, for the ultimate uncomfortability.  There was a mysterious sound code all around me. For the first time, I wanted to scream, thrash my arms and kick my legs in hopes the world would understand me without proper words or accents.

Suddlenly, once the intial frustration of having your senses snached, High School Spanish tests take on reality. Verbs such as to go (ir), to leave (salir), to return (volver), to want (querer) to like (encantar), flood your voice as you recall conjugations. Sure, I could vaguely ask for directions, “De donde es Calle Cava Bajo?”, or recite what I would like to eat, “Queria una Sangria”, although when it came to understanding the thick Spanish accent as they sang tones, accents and sounds that somehow correlated with my intent,  my face was blank and eyes wide. “Como?” This became a common theme as I initially tried speaking with our landlady, the cashier, or the cute boy at the bar. I began to learn hearing Spanish is the initial layer in learning Spanish.

As my time in Spain has become less daunting than the first few weeks, I have noticed the different barriers within language. While I am by no means fluent, language and the entire artistry that allows one another to communicate, is both simple and complex. At first, the experience felt more or less similar to the stages a newborn. When in language submersion, our brains absorb all the sounds and their associations. For what sounds like a meaningless sentence sang in Latin roots, is somehow meaningful and relevant with verbs and nouns. Although once, and only once you begin to associate those particular sounds, do they become words and phrases that you can keep in your pocket.

Contrary to learning Spanish on the street, tram, discotecas and grocery stores, the classroom teaches proper structure that allows wonderful real world learning. The PowerPoint slideshows and pens in hand, is an elaborate way to study language in slowmotion. The complex verb, subject and noun structure tied with tenses and colored with adjectives and intent is turned on pause and studied through verb conjugation charts, lists of ‘irregulars’ and obscure, yet relevant vocabulary. We write, we read, we speak. Although even with a notebook, full of the answers it is difficult to train your brain to learn a  language in a classroom. When given a text to read in Spanish, at first I used English as my crutch. I would read Spanish and translate the words and sentences to English for comprehension. Although as I’ve learned that simply defeats the purpose and slowly your mind begins to leave its English crutch behind and Spanish comprehension unfolds.

During my travels around Spain, among many snips of insight, my favorite came from a gentleman at a hostel in Granada. While I lay in my eight person, mixed dorm, a gentleman bursted through the door. He stood tall, with dreadlocks slung into a bun, and rings made of shells on his hands. “De donde eres?” He asked.  I replied, “Vivo en Alicante, pero soy de America. De donde eres y tu?” He went on to explain he was from Australia and we began to converse in English. The energetic gentleman began to tell us about his love for language. “ I know four languages. I grew up speaking Arabic, and have learned Spanish, French and English.

“I LOVE language,” he said with large eyes, “ It is like a rubic’s cube. You can spin and shift in anyway you would like. Language allows one different ways to interact with new perspectives of this world.” After I absorbed his slip of knowledge, he said “Hasta luego amiga.”

As the months have carried on, the thick air that once closed my throat for words and confused my ears has become thin(ner). Now, I can hear the words, the verbs and nouns when conversing. I can hear the conversations around me on the tram and in the grocery store and the boys I tutor in English. I can speak and converse with others. I can understand their language. While it is on a basic level, Spanish will be a lifelong pursuit leading my travels and yearn to interact with new perspectives.

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Taking a break from Spanish, Jamie Wanzek enjoys a beautiful view.