Chilean Chronicles, Part XXXV: Thinking in Spanish Before English

It happened for the first time the other day.

I had just woken up and was thinking about the comments that I will deliver tomorrow about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.`s life and legacy to about 100 students at St. George´s school.

The thoughts came in Spanish, and went on for a little while before I made two realizations.

The first was that my reflex had been Spanish before English.

The second was that this wouldn´t be particularly useful at St. George´s because their medium of instruction is English.

I grinned nevertheless.

For me, learning a language is a long-term and fitful process.

While you can, if you master about 500 essential words in just about any language, function at a certain level, it can take years to get to the point where you no longer make routine gramatical errors, you have a firm command of idiomatic expressions and the first question out of people´s mouths after meeting you is not, “Where are you from?”

They´re generally asking this because it´s abundantly clear that, whatever country you have traveled from, it is definitely not the one where you are at that very moment.

The closest I´ve come to someone thinking I´m from Chile since Dunreith and I landed here in mid-July is a five-year-old girl whom we met while taking our initial hike in the Andes.

After she asked me where I was from, I told her to guess.

Argentina? She asked hopefully.

No, I answered, pleased that her lack of knowledge led me to entertain, if only for a minute, the delusion that I actually sounded like I hail from one of Chile´s neighbors and biggest rivals.

I´m not holding my breath for anyone who actually knows anything about world geography or accents to think that somehow I come from the southern part of Chile.

At the same time, I have been inching closer and closer to the point where I am no longer continually doing the translation dance of hearing spoken Spanish, translating it into English, formulating my response in English and then translating the words back into Spanish before opening my mouth.

This is why the St. George´s thought was so exciting for me.

I´ve come close to this point before in other languages.

I had a moment or two after my exchange with Lai-Ang Tea in eighth grade-the program was set up to be English and French, and somehow the American and the Cambodian, who I later realized was likely a genocide survivor, were paired-after I spent two weeks with his family when the words started to come in French before English.

In 1985, after a couple of months of study in Florence, Italy and several weeks of travel, I dreamed once in Italian.

Working at Hoy since March 2011 has been terrific for my Spanish speaking, reading and writing.

I still remember a couple of months into my stint there, when colleague and friend Leticia Espinosa, a Mexican national, leaned over to me after I had spoken and said, politely but directly, ¨Jeff, I notice that you use the verb “sembrar” a lot. That verb doesn´t exist in Spanish.

What are you trying to say?” she asked.

I want to say “ to seem,¨ I answered.

“Es paracer,¨ she replied.

Leti´s instruction was one part of the gifts that many, if not all, of the members of the Hoy team gave. Octavio Lopez corrected my error-riddled writing with efficiency and without complaint.

Still, even with all this support, the combination of interacting a lot with Tribune folks and those folks on the Hoy staff who are more comfortable in English has contributed to my not yet taking this step.

Until now.

When it happens again, and I´m optimistic that that time will not be long, I´ll again feel joy and satisfaction at arriving at this level of fluency.

I´ll be grateful for the help provided to me by Dunreith, who has consented to have us speak Spanish much of the time we are at our apartment in Santiago as well as on the streets as we experience our various adventures here in Chile.

I´ll also remember Brandon Magruder, my friend and former colleague at Community Renewal Society.

A thin, highly intelligent young man with spectacles, a beard and a distinguished manner that belied his chronological age, Brandon and I spent hours, literally, talking Spanish with each other.

We´d greet each other by saying, ¨Hola, señor.”

Hello, Sir.

Then we´d chat for a while in Spanish before going our separate ways.

For a while, we met daily during our lunch break to go over exercises in the Instituto Cervantes workbooks, chat about our lives and dream of the day when we could one day reach the highest level that Instituto Cervantes had established.

“Estamos leyendas en nuestras mentes,¨ we`d say.

We´re legend in our own minds.

Brandon and I have not yet reached the Promised Land of attaining the pinacle of Instituto Cervantes achievement, but we haven´t given up our quest, either.

Brief and small, like a bulb poking up in spring, my thought the other gave me hope that we´ll get there.

Poco a poco.

La lucha continua.


2 responses to “Chilean Chronicles, Part XXXV: Thinking in Spanish Before English

  1. Exciting! You have learned so much. What will be next?

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Dave.

      I’ve missed talking with you and hope all’s good with you and your crew.
      Congrats to all of you on the triathlon.


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