Walking to my conversational Spanish class, I rehearsed phrases in my head, hoping practice would strengthen my fledgling skills. In spite of my efforts, I knew I would stumble to find and pronounce the right word. Sure enough, in class I attempted to say I had eaten lunch with friends, but instead said I had eaten my friends for lunch. We all chuckled, commiserating about our incompetence.
An hour later, we did the same when a classmate told us she had 11 children, when she meant to say she had that many siblings. Guided by our kind teacher, we humbly shared our best attempts, our earnest desire to learn and our many mistakes. Humbling as it is, there is much to be gained about learning another language.
I enrolled in the class because of family connections. My niece and her spouse are working for Mennonite Central Committee in Mexico. She and her family members are bilingual, a skill I admire. I imagined Spanish studies would help prepare me for a visit with them. Of course, a few classes do not make one fluent. While my one-month visit to Latin America did immerse me in Spanish, I could only manage a few words and phrases, and relied on my hosts to navigate transportation, directions, restaurants and shopping.
Apart from learning Spanish, I have learned other lessons along the way. For starters, I have learned that one doesn’t have to be perfect to enter into a bilingual conversation. On my trip, I encountered many people who engaged with me using their imperfect, accented English. In most cases, their message was completely understandable. From them, I acquired encouragement to try, even with my limitations.
My sympathy for speakers of non-native languages has increased greatly. I better understand the reasons for errors made in English by native Spanish speakers. For example, G, J and V all sound differently in Spanish than they do in English. This same difference also makes me prone to mispronounce Spanish words.
Language study offers a window through which to glimpse someone else’s perspective. One day in class, we were discussing pronunciation. A woman originally from Burundi related that many Canadians feel a need to correct English that is “heavily accented.” She said this in perfectly correct, accented English that she had learned in her native Burundi. There was a pause as we absorbed her critique. One person responded, “Maybe they’re just trying to be helpful.”
“No,” said the woman firmly. In the silence that followed, I wondered about how many misguided corrections native-born Canadians had imposed on this woman and others similar to her. I also with chagrin recalled my own moments of offering such “help.” In such cases, rather than accepting her English as valid, and focussing on her message, I inserted my “superior” speech. By doing so, I emphasized that I belong, and that she is a less capable newcomer.
Christians at this season celebrate Pentecost, the gift of the Holy Spirit and the birthday of the Christian church. Reading through the biblical account in Acts 2, we see that the miracle of Pentecost included both the capacity to speak other languages (verse 2) “as the Spirit gave them ability” and the capacity to hear and understand “in our own languages . . . God’s deeds of power” (verse 11). A unity was created in the midst of far-flung diversity, as the Spirit gave people the power to speak and understand other languages.
Maybe the lessons gained from learning a new language can be applied to other times of stretching across differences, to listen to, respect and learn from others.
Melissa Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org) has a passion for helping people develop healthy, vibrant relationships with God, self and others.