One of my most fervent aspirations is to become conversant in Latin American Spanish within the next couple of years.
I took three semesters of high school Spanish. Four decades ago. I'm not what you'd call 'good' at it.
So when I hear and understand a word or phrase in Spanish - or better yet, speak a word appropriately - I feel accomplished. Well, no, actually, I feel vindicated.
Growing up in the north woods of Maine, the vast majority of language students chose French. I suspect that being surrounded by French speaking Canadien provinces weighed heavily in their decision. I, however, chose Spanish because I had thoroughly researched immigration trending and knew without a doubt that the Latino population would explode in the coming years and I would need to be ready for it.
Well, no ... that's not true. I chose Spanish because it was rumored to be easier to learn than French.
Finally, forty years later, that choice has begun to pay off.
Our business transactions over the past few years have brought us within inches - literally INCHES - of the US border with Mexico. Most residents we encounter within a couple of hours of the border are flawlessly fluent in both languages. I envy them deeply.
Once, at a truckstop in Laredo, the ladies' room suddenly got quite busy when a passenger bus from Tamaulipas stopped on its way north. A wizened little woman, at least three hundred years old, stood at the lavatory and, perplexed, tried a dozen different ways to get the automated soap machine to dispense soap. She was barely five feet tall, with her heavily greyed hair twisted into a bun, wearing a floral patterned dress and a loosely knit black sweater. I smiled at her and said "¡Mira!", and waved my hand under the dispenser. The soap thusly dispensed and the little woman smiled broadly. "Ah! ¡Gracias!!" she said.
I was so pleased with myself that I nearly floated back out to the parking lot.
Alternatively, I once greeted a cashier with "¿Cómo está?" and was immediately overwhelmed with a rapid-fire response that was obviously friendly, yet completely undecipherable. I smiled widely, nodded vigorously, and exited rapidly. And I never attempted a ¿Cómo está? again.
This last Saturday morning, we visited a very busy nearby grocery to stock up on fresh produce. I danced and dodged my way though the throng of shoppers and collected an armful of guacamole ingredients. As I approached the spool of produce bags, an energetic young man of perhaps three years beat me to it. He chattered excitedly in Spanish to his mother and sister, a dozen feet away, as he swatted and pulled on the length of filmy plastic. He looked up at me as I approached, his dark eyes dancing with mischief as he continued to talk excitedly. I caught "quiero un" - "I want" - but absolutely nothing else after that. I pointed at the roll of bags. "¿Cuántos?" I asked. "¿Uno? ¿Dos?" (how many? one? two?)
"¡Uno! ¡Si!" he replied, followed by more Spanish I couldn't begin to understand. His mother pushed her shopping cart over to us and laughed at his antics. As did I.
That little munchkin will never know he was my very first fully interactive bi-lingual conversation. I'm richer for meeting him, though, as he has motivated me to work harder at it.