How I learned to speak Spanish, and why I never stopped.


Spanish I learned in Grade Nine,

And now that language is mine

     If you want to know why

     My emotions were high,

And my patients think it is fine

When people ask me why I speak Spanish, I give the short, simple answer:  I picked it up in middle school and I’ve never put it down.  Like all simple answers to complex questions, it is neither wholly true nor wholly untrue.

I remember the April morning in ninth grade Mr. Esbenshade walked into Spanish class and said, “These are the last words of English you will hear in my class.”  He dumped a bag of Cuisenaire rods (small wooden blocks, color coded by length) on the table, held one up and said, “Regleta.”  He motioned for us to repeat the word, made sure every one of us could say it, and moved right on to the verb tener, meaning to have.  At the end of the class I was thinking in Spanish, but I was not thinking very much or very deep.

High emotions make for high learning; for example, everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when they heard about 9/11.  Adolescence is a time of high emotions; my emotions at that time were even higher because very bad things were happening in my family of origin.  The language took root in my brain and has not left since. 

At my high-school reunion two years ago I talked about Mr. Esbenshade, and one of my classmates said, “I remember that day.  I didn’t learn a thing.”

I think Mr. Esbenshade changed teaching strategies out of frustration.  My group had failed to learn first year Spanish in seventh and eighth grades.

Seventh grade Spanish was El Espanol al Dia.  We didn’t get past Chapter Nine and we retained none of it over the summer.

In eighth grade they tried putting us in the brand-new Language Lab and giving us ALM (Audio-Lingual Method) Spanish. Evidently some thought the theory good at the time, but I doubt that constant repetition in the absence of visual reinforcement will induce anything but boredom in most normal middle-schoolers.  Nonetheless my children and wife will sometimes blurt ‘Albondigas!  No te dije?’ (Meatballs! Didn’t I tell you?) because I retained that phrase–it sounded like cursing.

After high-school I took a year of Spanish literature in college, but I haven’t studied Spanish on a formal basis since 1969. 

I worked in the minimum wage sector for a long time.  Language barriers being what they are, if I wanted an intelligent conversation with my co-workers during those years I had to speak Spanish.  I learned from mistakes and imitation.  There really is no substitute for practice.

The three years I worked with the Navajo I mostly worked on my Navajo language (Dine bizaad); I still spoke Spanish with some of the older men who had learned the language to carry on commerce with the local Hispanics. 

I came to private practice just before the tsunami of Hispanic immigration to Sioux City’s meat packing plants.  In a few years, half my practice was conducted in Spanish.  My office nurse learned basic Spanish.  We hired a series of Spanish-speaking receptionists who were very good workers.

Two decades ago, on a regular basis I could see relief on a patient’s face when I walked in speaking Spanish.

I attained fluency many years ago; now I’m articulate in Spanish to the point of doing comedy.

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