As diplomats we are given the chance to learn languages as rare and unknown as Quechua and as common as French. This opportunity is at once a rare luxury and a humbling mind warp. More than two years ago, when I finished studying Arabic and headed off for the Persian Gulf to serve in Bahrain, I thought that most likely I would head to another Arabic or English-designated posting for my second tour, but I fortunate enough to receive Spanish training for my consular assignment to Honduras.
Unlike Arabic, I immediately found Spanish appealing. Arabic was a struggle the whole way through, with deep periods of disappointment, as it seemed I would never be able to communicate with any degree of comfort. It’s true that today, if someone asked me if I speak Arabic, I would be dishonest to reply with anything more than “A very little bit, nothing more.” Spanish, on the other hand, I soon discovered, was all around me in Washington. If I wanted to I could completely immerse myself in the language without feeling distant from where I live here and now. I was very excited about all the Spanish I would be speaking and the people I would be speaking Spanish with in the District. That feeling faded about a month in, when I realized it was not going to be all pupusas and cerveza on the way to learning the mother tongue of Miquel de Cervantes, nor was I going to be speed-reading Don Quixote anytime soon.
Language learning is like a roller coaster: you start off slowly by steadily moving up a steep hill, chunk-clink-chunk-clink like the Cog Railway up Pikes Peak, and then dive off a cliff into a loop-di-loop, cruising at insane speeds only to slow to a crawl for a moment to breath before you head into the final rush that you hope will end well (and hopefully with your lunch still in your belly), and when you get off the ride, you either rave about the adventure or swear you will never do it again. I love roller coasters, but inevitably you get a little twisted up and after that first month I was in a steep rapid decline reminiscent of the Texas Giant. Other life issues come up while you ride this coaster and they can make that ride a bit more challenging. It can feel as though it began to rain Skittles in the middle of your ride – they are delicious, but you just wish that the storm could have waited until after the ride, so that you could have flipped an umbrella upside down to catch a few and to enjoy later. Instead, you just get pelted in the head by colorful candies that seem extra hard to catch and enjoy while you are cruising at 100 miles an hour.
Eventually, I learned to slow the pace down, or perhaps I just got used to it, and the experience began to become fun again. I also realized that you don’t have to kill yourself to learn a language, self-flagellating with notecards that read “preocuparse es un verbo reflexive” and “por y para para los idiotas” or “yo soy imperfecto, pero no soy pretérito” (i.e. studying until you can’t see straight as though you were an Arab or Jew in Ferdinand and Isabel’s Spanish Inquisition boot camp). The reality is that that sort of studying may help some, but only results in fatigue and anger for me. I discovered this around the time I was reaching my breaking point with the language. It was after a three-day weekend in which we fled to Long Island for a family wedding and spoke very little Spanish. When I returned, I discovered that something strange but amazing had happened: I was speaking without thinking for the first time and vocabulary I never knew I had seemed to spill out into my sentences like homemade guacamole, sour cream, and spicy salsa on a pile of otherwise generic tortilla chips. I call this little miracle – passive digestive learning (PDL). Without actively studying, much that I had painstakingly tried to absorb had finally sunk in. All that was necessary was a little time for my brain to shutdown, reboot, and process all that it had been bombarded with for the last few weeks, while I just had a relaxing weekend with my family.
Now, as I near the end of the roller coaster ride, I look forward to the final twists and turns. They are likely to churn my stomach, with one final scary dive, the dreaded final exam. But I feel better prepared now, with my seatbelt on and even the Skittles have stopped falling, at least temporarily. I had a conversation with a Spanish-speaking friend on the phone yesterday, and for the first time I felt that I was communicating real ideas and making sense, and without the aid of body language and hand gestures that prove to be so valuable in class. Other plans to utilize my newfound interest in Spanish seem more interesting than ever as my wife and I are planning on going with our friends to see a concert by a Colombian singer, I am going to re-watch Will Ferrell’s indelible classic Casa de Mi Padre, and I going to upgrade my Spanish YouTube browsing from Pulcino Pio to Isla Presidencial (OK, so I admit, if you clicked on those links, you will see that isn’t much of an upgrade. This is the famous Madrid set show I am actually planning on watching). Gracias por su atención. Que tenga un buen fin de semana mis amigos!