It started with that blind Puerto Rican folksinger. Home for the summer after my freshman year of college, I borrowed a worn vinyl copy of The Newport Folk Festival 1964 Evening Concerts from the library. José Feliciano sang "La Bamba." I didn't know where one word stopped and the next began. It sounded, to me, like "Parabailarlabamba!" Nevertheless, I was entranced by the rhythm of the music and the words. Next semester, I signed up for Spanish class.
The classes bored me. A month in Mexico and a semester in Costa Rica followed; I happily chatted in Spanish with native speakers, where my accuracy meant more than getting a B rather than a C. It determined whether or not a smile might crease my conversational partner's face. Before I learned Spanish, hearing it was confronting an auditory wall. The wall began to fall into pieces of individual words, each comprehensible and meaningful.
What I liked learning best in Spanish was vocabulary. It's amusing the way some Spanish words resemble their English counterparts—"pantalones" are pants, for instance—and refreshing how a legion of others are completely different. I enjoyed expressing meaning in ways that have no parallel in English, like putting -ito or -ico at the end of a word to express how small something was. "Chicos" are children, and "chiquitos" are little children. Though nouns remain vivid, tricky verb tenses have receded in my memory. "They worked" eludes me, but I can still conjure up the word for "strawberry." My Spanish sentences have become bright beads of nouns strung together with weak chains of verbs, articles and prepositions. Native Spanish speakers do not acknowledge this sorry state of affairs. They speak to me fluidly, in sentences that are steady streams. I understand perhaps half.
But it's only shyness that has caused my Spanish to grow rusty from disuse. I live in Carrboro, so fellow Spanish speakers are readily available. In fact, years ago, before I had children of my own, I babysat a child in a nearby neighborhood a couple of times. One day, I met the Spanish-speaking nanny of another toddler in the neighborhood. "Un amigito!" I heard her exclaim to her young charge as she approached the 2-year-old with whom I was using sidewalk chalk. After chatting a few minutes in Spanish, she said, "Perhaps we can walk the children together sometime." She was disappointed when I told her this was my last day babysitting.
When we parted, I hugged her. She smiled. Later, I thought it strange that I, normally so reserved, would hug someone I had just met. I sensed, though, that she was delighted by the conversation, just as I had been. She was entertained by my grammatical errors. I was grateful to be given the opportunity to make them.