Growing up, one thing I knew I never wanted to do was learn Spanish. I hated the sounds of it in my house, how my dad was constantly speaking it while on the phone with relatives in Mexico, how my whole family spoke it to each other between speaking English at parties like a secret language that I felt alien from, that I knew I would never understand. To this day, there’s disagreement about why I never learned Spanish, why my parents never taught it to me, and they will often blame each other even though my dad is the only one who’s truly fluent. What they do agree on is that I wasn’t encouraged to speak it at all. My dad would ask me questions in Spanish, not raising protests when I would immediately answer in English. Besides the occasional call to Mexico to thank my family members for birthday gifts, there was no expectation to practice, make mistakes, and be corrected. My dad was likely doing what other immigrant parents do, trying to prevent their children from having accents and protect them in public from harassment, xenophobia, and ignorance of people who are always asking Spanish speakers to enunciate their words and speak up in English. Or the dreaded “I can’t understand you with that accent.”
At the same time, though, I was around Spanish all the time. By the time I became a teenager, I was in a frustrating situation where I had a strong understanding of the language but no way to formulate and offer my own thoughts or speak it beyond an elementary level with basic phrases and present tense conjugations memorized. Not only was there no expectation to speak Spanish (besides my family members who exclusively speak it), but I’d also become too ashamed and embarrassed of my language deficiency to practice. Especially because I didn’t pick up anything from my high school Spanish classes either, I felt like I’d failed, that I should’ve tried harder as a child to advocate for myself, or at least that someone had told me why being bilingual would only benefit me later down the road. Instead, I felt alienated from my family on both sides of the border, other people my age who were fluent, and my community at large, many of whom still feel that speaking Spanish is a marker of superiority. Otherwise, you’re “Americanized” and hearing that from people in your circles can often hurt more than harm from people outside of it.
Beginning in May of this year, I decided that enough was enough. I didn’t want to play the victim anymore or lament how different my life could’ve been if things had aligned in another way. So I went ahead and signed up for a virtual, once-a-week Spanish language class at the Pasadena Learning Center, which fit perfectly into my busy work schedule and didn’t require me to travel anywhere. If I could’ve spent the summer in Mexico with my family, I would’ve, because that would’ve been a true crash course.
Over the past four months, it’s been a hard and slow but rewarding road. I love my teacher Elena, a native Spanish speaker from Mexico who utilizes the small class sizes to answer questions, work closely with each student, and actually make us practice Spanish during the class. Though I have an elementary understanding of the language, it was helpful for me to start the language over from the beginning to solidify my foundation, re-learning basic verb conjugations, vocabulary, and sentence structure. I’ve also enjoyed the ways she makes classes fun, like using online games, flash cards, matching games, and storytelling. It being held virtually has never taken away from the interactive learning experience or getting to know my fellow classmates. My accent is still questionable but I’ve been proud of my progress to the Center’s level 3 beginner class where I’m getting better with each class.
It also helps that I have my partner to tutor me and practice with outside of class, as he’s a fluent Spanish speaker with a lot of patience and grace. I’m not as embarrassed or afraid of making mistakes with him as I am with the rest of my family, or calling him to ask for help with my homework so he can break it down even more than my teacher often does. He also encourages me to speak it, which I’ve learned is truly the push I need to progress. At some point, I know I’ll get more comfortable doing it on my own all the time but for now, I’m grateful knowing that I have help from all sides.
He’s played a big part in me finally finding the courage to take my language journey into my own hands, as the majority of his family are Spanish speakers as well. After meeting them for the first time in the early days of our relationship, I realized that it was bad enough that I could barely speak in Spanish to my own family, but knowing that I couldn’t also get to know his relatives, especially his mom, frustrated me beyond belief. I wanted to actually talk to her when I visited their house, not just awkwardly exchange formalities I learned as a child. At that point, I no longer saw not knowing Spanish as a way to “resist colonization” or whatever I’d told myself before to feel better about my monolingual abilities. Instead, learning the language has become a symbol of respect and love for the people in my life that I care about, of a need for communication in the language that is most comfortable for them, of empowerment, of bridging gaps I’ve been too scared to cross for years.
If nothing else, I’ve gained that much more respect for ESL speakers like my dad and so many of my loved ones. Learning a language isn’t easy. There are many days when I have the urge to just give it up altogether because I don’t understand the present progressive tense or the differences between “le,” “les,” “los,” and “las.” What keeps me coming back and opening my textbook is the vision of a future me somewhere down the line speaking fluently to a group of people or a stranger at the grocery store or someone who needs a translator, even if it’s only for one conversation. I still have a long way to go but I’m excited for what’s coming, to learn more, and make my family—and myself—proud.