When I was in elementary school in Needham, Massachusetts, each week we had a Spanish class with Señora Waters, a teacher who broadcasted to all of the classes in the school on a television screen and was assisted by a stuffed bear appropriately named Osito. We learned how to say different kinds of food and the colors and the days of the week. It was my first real exposure to Spanish, and I remember not really thinking much of it then, except that it was pretty cool that there was a teacher on a TV screen talking to us. I couldn’t sense then that the rhythmic, lyrical vocabulary that was being transmitted to my seven-year-old brain would eventually not just become a part of what I would later do, but who I would later become.
When we learn languages in school, they are broken down into their parts. We learn vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure. We learn pronunciation and spelling and usage. We learn the rules, and we learn the exceptions. And all of these things are part of language, of course, but they are not what language is. Language is so much more than a sum of its parts.
Thinking about the transformation of Spanish in my life from a list of vocabulary words on a piece of notebook paper to this living, breathing part of my personality is like watching a child grow. I remember running home after Spanish class in sixth grade and telling my Mom I’d learned how to say scooch in your chairs—“Escuchen!” I remember during an oral exam in high school realizing that I was just talking in Spanish without having to translate my thoughts from English in my head. I remember in Chile when I was sixteen and I realized I was counting something in my head in Spanish. I remember sitting around the table with my first Chilean host family seven years after I lived with them and realizing that I understood 100% of what was being said. I remember the first time I got mistaken for Chilean. Spanish had morphed from a subject in school to an undeniable force in my life, something that was real and alive and important.
Spanish isn’t the subjunctive or the tú form or the car-gar-zar verbs or the accent marks or the rolled R’s. Spanish isn’t textbooks or quizzes or oral presentations.
Spanish is my second host mother Gladys thanking God for her entire family during her vow renewal and saying thank you for me, her “hija adoptive.” Spanish is driving around with my host brother Cristian blasting reggaeton and using choice Chilean curse words to describe our hangovers while we chug Gatorades. Spanish is talking to my eighth grade girls during recess about their love lives. Spanish is chatting with José, the bartender at the restaurant I worked at in Evanston when business was slow. Spanish is watching my first host mom Cecelia start to cry when she read the card I made her for mother’s day. Spanish is gossiping about telenovela characters with my host aunt Liza. Spanish is talking about nature and environmentalism and great music and How I Met Your Mother with my friend Diego. Spanish is about helping Jennifer, an Ecuadorian student, adjust to life at Yarmouth High School. Spanish is discussing dreams and poetry and translation with other teachers. Spanish is Cristian putting me in a headlock and telling all his friends that I’m his real sister, and that I’m more Chilean than American. Spanish is getting asked about and telling my life story to cab drivers. Spanish is being thousands of miles away from home and still feeling like I’m surrounded by family.
This weekend as I drove down from the Andes into Santiago after a full day of powder skiing in July, feeling that warm, tired feeling you get after a day of being outside in the snow and laughing and goofing around in Spanish with two of our new Chilean friends, I felt a sense of belonging and connectedness to this country so full and overwhelming I thought I might burst. And though I hadn’t realized it at the time, that is what all of my years of work in the classroom were leading up to, were allowing to come into being. That was the largeness a language could grow to occupy in your life. As vast and sprawling and stunning as the mountains we were driving through.
When I am in class with my middle schoolers, I am teaching them vocabulary and grammar and pronunciation and spelling. I am teaching them all the building blocks of language, all the concrete, cut and dry aspects that say nothing for what a language can do, what a language can be. I am teaching them how to say the names of the different foods, of the days of the week, how to tell time and talk about future plans. I am teaching these things and these are the same things that I first learned, all those years ago in the second grade with Señora Waters. Because as small as they are, as small as they seem, they are the way in which you are able to arrive at a later point in your life when you are on a bus in the middle of Chile and you realize that the language you were taught and the language you are teaching now are so important not because of what they contain but because of where they allow you to go.
Watching my students running around the room laughing and yelling English vocabulary as we play games on our last day of class, I feel a warm contentment when I realize I am enjoying myself as much as they are. I look at all of their little faces, eyes shining, cheeks pink and smiles broad.
Language isn’t about words. It’s about people.