Trident Gum, a Silk Thai Scarf, and a Mexican Love Triangle: a Story of Second Language Acquisition

“¿Estas bien, Yuri? ¿Que te paso?” I looked at my roommate in concern. The air was thick with stifled emotion and a mist of salty tears. Puffy pink skin lined the watery eyes of Yuri, a beautiful girl who was just finishing up college and starting her career in nursing at a local hospital in our small city in Mexico, where I had been living for about five months.

I realize now that I am very emotionally connected to Spanish. Most of what I learned was within the context of camaraderie, friendship and love.
I realize now that I am very emotionally connected to Spanish. Most of what I learned was within the context of camaraderie, friendship and love.

“Es Carlos,” she told me, haltingly. I sensed that she wanted to say more but that she was hesitant. It must be hard to explain relationship woes to someone who only faltering speaks and understands your language. Would she have the patience to explain it to me slowly? I really wanted to be a good friend and roommate, so I sealed up my courage, gave her a hug, and continued the conversation.

Yuri quickly unloaded the entire story of how her boyfriend was caught being with another girl in her hometown. The tears flowed again, the story tumbled out of her, and in this intimate setting where there was no the pressure to have to compete with other native speakers who would more quickly be able to say the right thing, I was able to step up to the plate and tell her all the things she needed to hear. Luckily, by this time, I had acquired key vocabulary needed to tell her she didn’t deserve this treatment, Carlos certainly didn’t deserve her or her trust, and he was a stupid idiot for cheating on her. Not wanting to sound too harsh or judgmental, I was so glad I had spent time over the last months figuring out how to use the subjunctive tenses, as it helps one sound tactful.

As Yuri dried her eyes, exhaled deeply, shoulders relaxing in catharsis, an idea started to form in my subconscious: this is what it’s all about. Intimacy, friendship, understanding through a deeper level of communication. This is what I wanted to achieve. A turning point, I was finally approaching a level of competency where I could use language not just for making acquaintances and going shopping, but for truly having friends.

This takes a long time, and I am still working on it.

I grew up monolingual. Ten years ago, I never would have imagined I’d have fluency in another language. It’s been a long journey, full of ups and downs.

My earliest exposure to Spanish was with the employees of my father’s landscaping business. As a little girl, one of my favorite things to do was walk with my cats to the house of Pepe, who stayed nearby and returned to Mexico every winter. Faint memories–a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexican music, smiling dark brown eyes, heavily accented English as he stopped to pet the cats and say hello to me and give me a pack of Trident gum. (He always had an entire shopping bag full of Trident gum!) Dad said Pepe had daughters like me in Mexico. Looking back, I wonder, were my visits helping Pepe to acquire more English? It was probably easier for him to talk to a little girl than to adults.

Stricter immigration laws were passed, and I didn’t see Pepe anymore. Spanish came into my life again for two years in high school and two at university, but they didn’t make an impact. Class was easy, boring, and filled with unmotivated learners. I figured I wasn’t the type of person who could really learn a language.

Spanish faded from my life but traveling took over. I was off to Italy. For weeks, I prepared. My hands clasped the steering wheel and my foot worked the peddle of my car while my mind became absorbed with listening and repeating after the smooth Italian voices of my “Learn Italian in Your Car” CDs. Surprise, surprise! Four months in Italy and I was speaking very basic conversational Italian. I realized I could learn a language, if I just put myself in the actual country and tried.

China summer camp was next and I felt like a failure. I had done nothing to prepare myself and realized the first day that I did not even know how to ask for water. Failure! I would not let that happen again.

Then came student teaching in Thailand. Determined not to repeat the China debacle, I bought Thai CDs for my car and went to work preparing for the oncoming trip. The tones and long and short vowels were fascinating to my musical ear. A long plane ride to Bangkok, a series of simple conversations with taxi drivers and shop keepers….Fast forward to week number ten in Thailand. My final week.

My heart exploded as I realized how much it had meant to Rin’s mother that I had really tried to communicate with her in her language.
My heart exploded as I realized how much it had meant to Rin’s mother that I had really tried to communicate with her in her language.

The family of our Thai friend Rin has been taking us student teachers out on excursions and dinners. For weeks, her mother and I had been having basic Thai conversation about age, favorite color, liking the country, etc. Now Rin’s mom pulled me aside, and in heavily-accented English, she whispered conspiratorially, “Don’t say the other teachers. I don’t want the others know. I want you have…” She pressed a sage-green, crimson and gold silk scarf into my hands, gesturing for me to hide it in my bag because she did not have scarves for the other student teachers. My heart exploded as I realized how much it had meant to Rin’s mother that I had really tried to communicate with her in her language. I was beginning to understand the power that language acquisition has on relationships.

I was hooked. I really wanted to learn a language well enough to truly be able to communicate. A fellow traveler had told me that if you can speak English, Spanish and Mandarin, you can speak with two-thirds of the world’s population. I decided I should learn Spanish or Mandarin…. Spanish or Mandarin?…. Visions of lively dancers, upbeat music, laughter, vivid colors of a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe twirled before my eyes.

I was teaching in New Jersey now, but the following summer I went to Mexico to try in earnest with an immersion course. This was my first time being in a country where I had a lot of prior knowledge of the language and still it was completely overwhelming. Words flew by me in a torrent of sounds, like leaves tumbling and swirling around in a wind storm. How long would it take to ever be able to distinguish words from among the barrage of sounds?

A small notebook eternally in hand, words were compiled by me, by the shopkeeper, by the waiter, by my landlady, by coworkers, by laughing friends at pubs and dinner parties. Symbols, sketches and maps were drawn. Anything to help me hold onto these new words!

I didn’t know that life would unfold in a way that I would move to Mexico the following summer. A year later I was back to stay for as long as it would take. The word lists sprawled into a second notebook, a third. The violent rush of words that pounded into me still had not slowed down. I’d recognize a word whip past my ear, and then it was gone before I could react, lost in the surge of sounds. Listening, listening, telling myself, this is eventually going to mold my brain into something that can comprehend…this will end… and then the inevitable headaches, fatigue and exhaustion…me: mouth open, drooling, soundly sleeping on the shoulder of a friend in the middle of a dinner party, notebook draped across my lap…The brain can only take in so much before it shuts down.

I may have given up if I hadn’t come from a linguistically successful background. I had a lot of positive reinforcement and reassurance growing up as I was very strong in English reading and writing from a young age. This gave me language learning confidence and literacy tools. What I have never been confident about was, and still is, my ability to understand what I am hearing. This was my biggest fear and struggle early on.

I enrolled in a painting class while in Mexico.
I enrolled in a painting class while in Mexico.

Time. Language acquisition takes a long, long time. …A… long…time. With time, the wind slowed down, I caught more words, I breathed in the breeze a little deeper, headaches became less frequent; I stayed awake longer. I spoke more. I enrolled in a painting class. I performed with a ballet group. I developed relationships. I laughed and cried with my roommates, comforted them and they comforted me. We shrieked and killed cockroaches in the kitchen together. Word lists in my notebook became longer, yet I didn’t need them anymore. I found I wasn’t using it much now.

After more than a year, I realized with shock that the muscles in my mouth and throat had changed. All of the sudden, I was rolling my Rs, something I thought I’d never be able to acquire as an adult in her mid-20s. With the continual teasing of my Mexican “family,” I learned to tweak the ll from a very gringo-sounding /y/ sound to a very Mexican-sounding soft /j/ sound. Some people started to ask if I was from a Mexican rancho, rather than if I spoke English. One person asked me once why I spoke like a politician, slow and deliberate. People have told me I speak fabulously, others have said, “You don’t speak any Spanish do you?” You just have to let these comments roll off your back. There are days I feel like I’ll never be good enough and days I am happy with my progress.

I realize now that I am very emotionally connected to Spanish. Most of what I learned was within the context of camaraderie, friendship and love. In the past, it was within the loving support of my Mexican “family” and since then it has been with Spanish-speaking friends and people with whom I have positive interactions.

Language acquisition is deeply emotional and social, something I learned from packs of Trident gum, a silk Thai scarf, and a Mexican heartbreak followed by hugs.

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