Learning to speak

leslie-townsendHALF-EMPTY MASON JAR

Contributing Editor

Satisfaction is a state of mind. When you look at a glass of water, do you see it as half empty or half full? Some of us have an immediate response. “It’s half full, of course,” declares the optimist. Others say, “It depends on my mood, the day of the week, season of the year and whether it’s raining.” This blog is Leslie’s attempt to promote sustainable mind and spirit by looking more closely at the proverbial half-empty, half-full mason jar.

“Fue hacer la noche pasada, Leslie?”

This is day four of a three-week Spanish immersion course in Costa Rica—immersion as in baptism by fire, no other language allowed.

I regard Ruth, our teacher, dumbly. “Uh, que signifie . . ?”

Ruth winds up like a professional baseball pitcher and hurls a stream of Spanish so fast and furious, my brain seizes.

My daughter Sarah leans over and translates, “What did you do last night?”

Ruth gazes out the window, pretending she neither sees nor hears her.

My five fellow students are waiting. I haven’t figured it out yet, but this will be our daily routine. The teacher goes from student to student asking what we did the night before or the previous weekend. It takes me four days to notice this, as I’m so anxious, I fail to connect one episode to the next, hoping only to survive each question shot in my direction.

“Comidos la cena con . . .”

“Verdad, Leslie?” Ruth purses her lips and scowls. She grabs a green marker and turns toward the white board.

Before I determine the nature of my mistake, some 20-something offers the correction, “Comemos.” Language school is full of 20-somethings: young, bright, vivacious students who run on the beach or do yoga and look fantastic in bikinis.

“Si,” Ruth says and rattles off an explanation in Spanish which sails past me. Furtively, I flip through my Spanish/English dictionary, but by now, I’m so nervous I’ve forgotten how to alphabetize. I find the C’s easily enough, but where does the O come? Before or after N?

The worst times are when Ruth asks me one question ,which I mess up, so she asks me another, which I don’t understand because I’ve misinterpreted her original question, which means as she asks the inevitable third and fourth question, I sink further and further in quicksand while fellow students regard me with quizzical expressions behind which lies the question, “What’s she doing in this class?”

My difficulty learning Spanish comes as a shock to me. Though I’ve fumbled at many things, I’ve always excelled academically. My self-esteem rests upon the conviction that I’m smart.

I’m not smart in Costa Rica. I’m always being corrected. Teachers correct me; my host family corrects me; shopkeepers correct me; my daughter corrects me; my daughter’s friends correct me.

I want to go home. At home, in Kentucky, I’m smart. I speak the language, know the shopkeepers, and perform work that is valued. Here, I’m nobody. I’m like the emperor in his new clothes, stripped down to nothing. My self-esteem, so solid at home, is illusory. It’s based on privilege, not merit.

If a three-week Spanish immersion program can radically threaten my self-confidence, what must it be like for non-English speaking immigrants who come to the United States?

“Vamos, Mama,” Sarah interrupts my thoughts. Class has ended and we are preparing for a weekend excursion. “The bus is leaving. Grab your stuff.”

I sling my backpack over one shoulder, grab a water bottle, and climb onto the minibus. For the next two days, 12 of us will travel through the Cloud Forest of Monteverde and to Arenol, an active volcano.

Happily, we will all converse in English.

Contributing Editor Leslie Smith Townsend is a pastoral counselor in private practice. A composite excerpt of her memoir appears in the anthology Voices of Alcoholism.

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