My bilingual journey began as most Americans do in their attempt to learn a language, that is, during high school. Oh, I thought I was really a great Spanish speaker at the time… Little did I know however, that that my extremely limited “Mexican vocabulary and ‘Eres Tu’ music masterpiece” taught by gringos in the US was insufficient to carry on more than a 15 second conversation once I arrived several years later in Buenos Aires, Argentina on a volunteer experience for my church that would last 18 months.
Rude was the awakening, since I realized I had to learn conversational or at a minimum, survival Spanish ASAP, and I’d just been put on a bus going from the main bus station in Buenos Aires headed to the middle of nowhere in a place called “Los Toldos” that I later learned was the hometown of the famous “Evita” that inspired the song, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”.
To make matters worse, I was told by my peers that put me on that forsaken freezing and hole-filled bus on July 1, 1992 (which had to have been the coldest day of the year), that I needed to get off on the second to the last bus stop, and I didn’t even have the slightest clue how I was going to tell the bus driver where I was supposed to go. Without a doubt, I now chalk that experience up to being close to one of the longest and most terrifying days of my life.
Without any valid explanation of how it happened, I did arrive safely to that place and began to interact with the people. However, despite my constant study and practice, I was seriously struggling with the language and it was apparent to all those around me. I remember being forced to teach the people and thinking to myself, ‘Wow, I’d really nailed the Spanish that time’, only to have the people turn to my companion and ask her, “Now, can you tell me what she just said?” referring to my inability to communicate with the people in a way that they could understand. It was frustrating beyond belief, and often drove me to tears for the first 3 months of my stay in the midst of Eva Peron’s hometown…
Then a turn of fate suddenly happened. I was sent to a different area and was the only American to live among 4 other Spanish-speaking girls from different countries in Latin America, namely Argentina and Uruguay. They were so patient and loving with me that it all began to come together, and it seemed like in just one month my Spanish flourished and it suddenly clicked; I began to communicate and the people could finally understand me… Wow, what a difference it made to be able to express myself and be heard!
My first stay in Argentina lasted a year and a half and I had wonderful experiences with the people there. I learned how to speak Spanish fluently and communicate well with the people and thus was granted many other bilingual opportunities in the workplace after returning to the US. I attribute the experience of having been afforded the chance to immerse myself in the language by living there among the people and experiencing the culture firsthand.
Let’s fast forward a bit into 1995. I fell in love with, married an Argentine man and moved there, thinking I’d be there for just a few years and then I’d move back to the states again. That didn’t exactly happen. My second stay lasted 17 years. For more on this story, see the next SWLS letter in November, when Part 2 of this saga continues…
By Kimberlee Thorne-Waintraub @ Small World Language Services