Spanish Lessons: Learning a New Language Opens Our Hearts as Well as Our Mouths

By Coffey, Kathy | U.S. Catholic, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Spanish Lessons: Learning a New Language Opens Our Hearts as Well as Our Mouths


Coffey, Kathy, U.S. Catholic


It all began, as many things do, with the Catholic Church. "Digo si, Senor." "Oyenos, mi Dios." "La palabra de Dios." Many of us can fake a few Spanish songs or Mass responses, but I wanted to know more of this language spoken throughout the world. When the gospel is proclaimed bilingually, it's as beautiful as two intertwined vines--but I could only follow one.

I was embarrassed when I'd arrive to give a talk, and the organizer would say, "We didn't have enough people for the Spanish track, so we've put them all in your English-speaking one."

!Pobrecitos! I could only imagine how cheated I'd feel if I signed up for a workshop in my native language, then had to listen in another. With the help of a friend, I crafted a halting welcome in Spanish, rehearsed it endlessly and tried not to insult the audience too much when I bumbled through this opening.

But that wasn't enough. I felt like a dumb gringa, neither understanding nor speaking the language of almost half the American church. I couldn't even read the Spanish translations of my own books!

Drawing even more attention to my incompetence, I had insisted on my children being bilingual. One studied in Guatemala, another in Mexico, and a third became fluent in Spanish (and learned a few raunchy jokes) working in a hotel kitchen. Whenever I'd get flustered because we were late for a flight or important event, they'd reassure: "Estamos bien."

But this was about more than one small family. There is something compelling about the universality of the Catholic Church. It strikes me every year at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, the largest and most diverse gathering of this kind in the country. Asian drummers, African dancers, mariachi musicians, readers and singers from various cultures all combine their talents for dramatic liturgies that showcase the rich variety within our tradition.

"None of us is as smart as all of us" is an axiom that certainly applies to worship. Within a single culture, we can be bland as vanilla pudding. When multiple streams combine, it builds to a crescendo of "wow."

Furthermore, the U.S. bishops have spoken courageously on immigration. When federal agents raided Swift & Co. meat packing plants, religious leaders pointed to the injustice of separating children from parents whose "crime" was working at jobs most native-born Americans would reject.

While I sympathized mightily, I couldn't express it in a language they would understand. Learning Spanish seemed like a step toward a larger heart.

So every Monday for the past nine months I've trudged to a local campus for Spanish class. My skills are still embarrassing: With limited vocabulary and knowledge of only the present tense, my efforts must seem like a toddler's. What's heartening is the verve of Marianne, our Venezuelan instructor, who repeats the basics until she must want to shriek.

Still, she enhances our study with the play of language: the nuances, the color, and drama. Those who've spoken their native tongue for a long time get complacent with it. We rely on the same, tired expressions.

In contrast, new brain channels must open and expand as I learn the Spanish word for a familiar object or concept. It's fun to see if it parallels English or French, and how colloquialisms reflect the spirit of a people.

Most folks like to be in a place where they feel competent and successful. Yet the students in this class have moved beyond their comfort zones to risk appearing foolish when they try unfamiliar words or sentence constructions. …

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