I love the library near my house. They have free events all the time. The other night they had a grown up game night, complete with Twister, Nerf gun wars, and a life-size game of chess.
One of their offerings is language conversation groups. I attend the Spanish group on Thursday evenings. Those of us learning Spanish or keeping up with our Spanish sit around a table and discuss various topics. What I love is that we’re literally just talking. But because it’s in a different language, it feels super productive.
In the city where I live, where time is a precious of commodity, just sitting and talking with anyone is somewhat rare. And, as one who has led many a church small group, I know how difficult it is to get everyone to open up and talk or ask questions. In this context, everyone wants to talk. It’s the whole purpose of being there.
All that to say, I’ve learned more about these people than I have learned about most people I’ve known for months. Because all we do is talk for an hour every Thursday night and the topics are usually very interesting.
Last night, the opening conversation starter was, “Why did you want to learn Spanish?”
The answers varied. One gentleman lived in southern Florida and had a lot of Hispanic friends. One woman just liked languages (she speaks nine of them, in fact). Several people needed a second language for work. One woman had grandparents from Puerto Rico who didn’t speak English and she wanted to be able to communicate with them.
When it came time for me to answer, I said I wanted to learn because I wanted a superpower. Spanish is my superpower.
This hearkened back to the early days of my childhood when missionaries from Guatemala visited our home. I learned to count to 10 in Spanish and thought I was half way to being fluent.
That summer, my mom enrolled me in a Spanish camp. I could order pizza in Spanish and I knew I was practically a native.
As a teenager, I visited Guatemala for the first time. One of the missionaries told me how to ask for napkins at a restaurant. I remember walking away from the counter with a pile of white napkins proudly gripped in my fist. For the first time, I’d communicated in another language with someone from a different country.
I felt like I had just saved the world.
It’s been almost twenty years since that first moment of triumph. While I’ve never regretted putting time and resources into learning Spanish, I often wonder what the purpose is. I don’t live in a Spanish-speaking country. I don’t attend a church or live in a community with Spanish speakers. My job doesn’t use it. Nobody in my family speaks it. I can count on one hand the number of times Spanish has come in handy since returning from a year long posting in Mexico.
One of those moments was in seminary. I was writing a paper on Catholicism and trying to figure out from which direction I wanted to approach it. My preliminary research led me to several articles written by reporters from Mexico, which were all in Spanish. I printed them out and started to read.
At one point while reading, I halted my highlighter mid swipe, looked up from the article and said to myself, “I’m doing research in a different language. This is so cool!”
Though I’ve never regretted acquiring this superpower, when one considers the money and the time put into its acquisition, one does begin to wonder what the point of having it is.
I mean, I’m sure Clark Kent—pre Super Man—had to wonder why he had super strength if he just had to keep it hidden.
Not that I’m comparing myself to Super Man (yes, actually I am), I just sometimes wonder. If I had known how much time and money it would take, if I had known how many tears would be shed and how many headaches from studying I would fend off with ibuprofen, would I have pursued it? Was the utilitarian purpose truly worth it?
Last night, as I sat in my Spanish conversation group, looking around at the odd assortment of people—people from all over the world with life stories so different from mine—I realized, I don’t need Spanish to have a utilitarian purpose. Many of the attenders had a utilitarian purpose for their language study, but by the looks on their faces, most of them were attending the group because they enjoyed it. As one group member remarked, “We’re all such geeks. We’re learning Spanish for fun!”
His words were a timely prophesy for my soul. Yes, my superpower has come in handy on occasion. Yes, I hope to use it regularly, and I pray someday I’ll be able to enroll my children in a Spanish immersion school. Yes, I can see how it might be useful and could very well open doors somewhere in the future.
But for now, my seven-year-old self is smiling up at me, beaming with the wonder of a girl who’s just learned how to count to 10 in another language. She has no idea how difficult it is to learn another language, but she doesn’t care. She loves it. It brings her joy and opens her mind and heart to a whole other world. Her dream is far bigger than she could ever imagine: it doesn’t make sense and is rather impractical.
She is completely unaware of these realities and that makes her joy that much more inspiring.
It’s an honor to help make her dream come true.