Learning a New Language

The line at Aldi’s stretched almost to the back of the store. The lady in line behind me made a comment about them needing to open a second lane. I agreed, but I wasn’t bothered. Honestly, after seeing the photos of that drowned toddler that washed ashore… After spending the last week with my heart heavy for the refugees from Syria and similar people groups… I just couldn’t work up any impatience over the line at Aldi’s. I had a buggy full of food and money to pay for it. I had no cause for complaint.

In front of me was a family, a couple with their small child and two other women. They were speaking Spanish, and I challenged myself to translate in my head. I heard one of the women ask the little girl where her shoes (zapatos) were. The little girl pointed into the freezer beside us and asked for chicken (pollo).

As people inched forward, another cashier appeared and we split into two lines. I was behind the couple and their daughter. The husband put a divider on the conveyor belt so I could unload my buggy without mixing up our groceries. I thanked him.

In Spanish.

It just popped out. I’ve been learning Spanish for two years, intermittently. For the last month, I’ve been studying daily, using Rosetta Stone. I have almost completed level 1. I have no Spanish speaker to practice with, so I’m much better at reading the language than speaking it. But when a Spanish-speaking man did something kind for me, I automatically said, “Gracias.”

He smiled.

I wanted to say more. I tried to catch the little girl’s eye. In my head I rehearsed, “Tu pelo es bonita.” It’s probably not a perfect Spanish sentence, structurally, but I was pretty confident it would be understood as, “Your hair is pretty.” I also could have asked the mother, “¿Cuántos años tiene tu hija?” That means, “How old is your daughter?” Currently, my most important sentence is, “Estoy aprendiendo español.” That means, “I am learning Spanish.”

I said none of these things.

After he heard me say gracias, the father continued to look back at me. His eyes no longer skimmed over me. I became a real person. His wife looked at me too. I had every chance to speak, but I didn’t. I didn’t even manage an adiós as we parted ways. They were unloading their groceries into their SUV right beside my car.

I never opened my mouth.


Because I was scared.

What happens if I speak but don’t understand a single word said in reply? Will I look like a silly white woman playing at language? Will they be insulted by my stumbling Spanish?

This didn’t scare me in Honduras. There, where everyone around me spoke Spanish, it felt natural to try. Here, I feel out of place, like I am trying to insert myself where I was not invited.

Also, I don’t like to look stupid.

Learning something new often means making a fool of yourself. You can’t learn a new dance without messing up a few times. You will look silly. Want to learn to ride horses or ride a bicycle or drive a stick-shift? You might struggle, fall down, stall out. You might follow every word of the recipe and still have your peach pound cake fall apart.

People might laugh at you.

People might laugh at me.

All day, I thought of that family and my inability to do the one thing I have been so anxious to do… speak Spanish with Spanish speakers.

I’m going to have to suck it up and take some risks if I want to accomplish anything in this life. From speaking Spanish to selling a novel, it all requires me risking rejection, taking the chance that I might look silly or make a mistake.

What are you afraid of, friends? What would you do, right now, if all that fear got wiped away?

In Psalm 51, we read, “Going through the motions doesn’t please you, a flawless performance is nothing to you. I learned God-worship when my pride was shattered. Heart-shattered lives ready for love don’t for a moment escape God’s notice.”

When I was in Honduras, I understood that my Spanish need not be flawless. The people I spoke to appreciated my attempt to connect with them. Maybe the family in Aldi’s would have laughed at my halting Spanish, but probably not. Probably, they too would have appreciated my attempt to connect, to see them and speak to them in their own tongue, to recognize them as fellow human-beings.

Maybe, just maybe, if I learn to follow my heart and open my mouth, someone else will know their life has not escaped God’s notice. Maybe God will use me if I lay down my pride and just try.


*originally published on Middle Places


One thought on “Learning a New Language

  1. Pingback: Show Up Scared | Heather Truett

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