Spanish: My Experience Learning a Language

spanish my experience learning a language

My Mission Call

One evening in mid-April,I sat against the fireplace in the lounge of my apartment complex during my first year in College. With friends and family surrounding me, I ripped open my Mission call. With hands shaking and four cameras shoved in my face, different countries flashed through my mind as I wondered where I would be headed. I had secretly always wanted to go to Mexico. I pulled out the call letter and began reading.

“You have hereby been called to serve as a Missionary for the Church…” While reading, I skimmed ahead to see where I was going before announcing it out loud to everyone else. Looking ahead, I saw the word, “Mexico.” My heart jumped with excitement. I continued reading. “…of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You are assigned to serve in the Albuquerque New Mexico Mission.” My stomach sank a little bit as I heard myself audibly say, “New Mexico.” Hopefully those around me couldn’t sense my disappointment.

With all the screaming and cheering going on in the background, I completely forgot to read the rest of the letter. It wasn’t until a minute later that my Uncle asked, “Are you learning a new language?” I looked back down and continued reading. “You will prepare to teach the gospel in the Spanish language.” It was in that moment where the call felt right to me. “Albuquerque, huh?” I thought to myself. “If that’s where you want me to go, I’ll do it.”

The Beginning

Slightly less than five months later, I was standing on a curb in Provo, Utah saying goodbye to my parents. Honestly, it all felt like one big dream. I didn’t feel like a Missionary. That reality quickly changed. I soon got the slap across the face that I needed to wake me up.

The age change announcement by President Monson had not yet happened, but they were preparing for it. The announcement came a little more than a year later. My District in the MTC was one of the first groups to go through the new “pilot program” for Spanish Missionaries. Although we were still at the MTC for the 9-week period, we took part in testing a more condensed 6-week training program.

Learning Spanish quickly became a full-time job. Stuck in a classroom for 12 hours a day studying, everything suddenly became painfully real. After only three days, we were expected to begin teaching an investigator. How was I supposed to teach someone the Restoration? I felt that I wouldn’t have been able to teach the lessons in English, much less in Spanish. “Karla” was her name. I’m certain she had absolutely no idea what we were saying to her, but she was a good sport. She always had a smile on her face, and kept nodding. The majority of what we said came straight from prewritten sentences scribbled in a small notebook.

After only four days in the MTC, we had far surpassed any of the grammar principles that I had learned in High School. It’s often been compared to sticking a fire-hose in your mouth and trying to take a drink of water. From day one, you are completely immersed in the language. Your teachers speak nothing but Spanish, and you’re encouraged to speak Spanish as much as possible, whether inside the classroom or out. I very vividly remember looking at someone who had been in the MTC only three weeks longer than I had and thought to myself, “Wow. I can’t wait to speak like they do.” Every day, and in every way, you will get better.

Learning to pray in Spanish was really difficult for me. For the first week, I pretty much read my prayers from the textbooks word-for-word. By the end of the MTC, I was more than able to say basic words and phrases and could pray without being aided by a textbook. Although my prayers most certainly weren’t very complex, they were simple, and came from the heart with what little Spanish I knew.

Mistakes were made every single day, often going without correction. For the longest time, I didn’t know the difference between “pescado” (fish) and “pecado” (sin). I frequently told people that “Jesus took away all my fish.” (Jesucristo quitó todo mi pescado.) But that’s part of the process. I would often carry around a giant ring of flashcards to practice while I was at meals, getting ready for bed, doing laundry, and even while using the bathroom. Slowly, but surely, I could see myself progressing and improving.

One of the first breakthroughs I ever had was when we went to something called the “Teaching Resource Center.” Because the MTC is considered part of the BYU campus, students could volunteer to come and speak to us. They would listen to us, and we definitely appreciated the added practice. I remember one experience in particular when a man came in to speak with my companion and I. At one point the man began speaking, and I busted out laughing. I hope I didn’t offend the poor guy. In that moment, I realized that the strange sounds and gibberish coming out of his mouth actually made sense to me.

Learning to Rely on the Spirit

I met my trainer two days after arriving in New Mexico. Elder Rico was an incredible Missionary. I looked up to him so much more than he’ll ever know. Although he trained me after only being a Missionary for four months himself, his Spanish was leaps and bounds ahead of mine. Although he didn’t speak Spanish before his Mission, he had a head start on certain words and phrases because his Dad was Hispanic. Elder Rico would often joke, “I understand Spanish best when people are mad at me. Especially swear words. That’s when my Dad would use Spanish with us at home.”

He was a great help to me. For the first two or three months, he taught the majority of the lessons while I sat back and listened. He would give me a minute or two just to add my two cents, but he took the majority of the load. Most of my focus was spent on trying to understand what the people were saying to me in the first place. I would stare at the person and give it everything I had just to decrypt even a small portion of what they were saying. By the end of the day, I would come home with a gnarly migraine, pop some ibuprofen, and head straight to bed.

The Spirit became a marvelous aid in speaking Spanish. I was terrified to give my first blessing. In companionship study, I had my companion write out how to anoint and seal a blessing. Every day, I worked on memorizing those few lines so that if I were called on, I would be able to perform a blessing. We would give blessings often, but my companion would take care of the actual blessing. I would do the easy part and anoint. I would reach back into my brain, recite my few little lines, and then my companion would handle the rest.

One day, we went to an appointment and met with a man named Lorenzo. He was investigating the Church and was at the point of baptism. There was only one thing impeding him; smoking. He had smoked for 57 years and that was the only thing standing in the way. As we were closing up the lesson, my companion told Lorenzo, “If you’d like, we can give you a blessing.” He replied, “I’d like that.” My companion then proceeded to say, “There are two parts to a blessing. Who would you like to do the sealing?” Lorenzo looked at me and nodded in my direction. Fear spread throughout my entire body.

We proceeded with the blessing. My companion did the anointing, and then I stood behind Lorenzo and placed my hands on his head. The first few words that came out of my mouth were pretty rough. I noticed a lot of mistakes. But within 10-15 seconds, I noticed my mind actually “click” off. I stopped thinking about what I wanted to say. In fact, I stopped thinking completely. I let my mind go blank, and the Spirit took over. I was literally the mouthpiece for the Lord.

The Gift of Tongues

For almost the entire duration of my Mission, I carried around a small notebook in my front pocket everywhere I went. Whenever I heard a new word or phrase that I didn’t understand, I would write it down. I would either ask the person what it meant right there, or if the situation wasn’t right, I would write it down and look it up in a dictionary after getting home. When we had downtime, I would pull out my notebook and review the words that I had written down.

After my initial three months of training, I was transferred four hours North to Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was a stark difference. Instead of being in a run-down area of El Paso, Texas with lots of Hispanics, I was now in a rich white neighborhood. We covered a large English Ward, and a puny Spanish branch with no more than 30 people. Although I did my best to continue speaking Spanish and doing my language studies in the morning, I felt my Spanish abilities plummet. I had no accent and I barely understood the grammar.

Looking for people to teach in Spanish proved to be incredibly difficult. While knocking doors, maybe 1 out of every 20 doors was a Spanish speaker. And even then, because they were living in an upper middle-class neighborhood, most were bilingual and preferred to speak English anyway. The only time I was able to speak Spanish with someone besides my companion was at Church with the members. Never before in my life have I seen such a diverse group of people. In that small branch existed every accent you could think of. There were Cubans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Guatemalans, Peruvians, and Uruguayans. I would talk to one member for a minute or two. Then, upon talking to another member, I couldn’t understand them because my ear had become accustomed to the previous accent.

I remember one experience where a member was giving a talk and he said the word, “Shaves.” (pronounced: shaw-vays) I had never heard that word before, and I so I wrote it down in my notebook and asked a member after Sacrament Meeting what it meant. He just laughed at me and said, “Llaves, Elder. Not shaves.” The person speaking spoke in castellano, a different dialect used in Argentina and Spain. While the word was the same (‘llaves’ means ‘keys’), the pronunciation was different. You can imagine how difficult that would be for a young Missionary just trying to get used to one dialect.

I remember the first time that I actually recognized that I had the Gift of Tongues. We were headed over to a member’s house for dinner. Upon arriving, we weren’t able to enter, because the lady’s husband hadn’t gotten home from work yet, and was running late. The lady spoke to us and said, “Lo siento, Elderes. Se descompuso la camienta, y por eso, mi esposo anda tarde.” The rest of the words I recognized, but that one “descompuso” really confused me. I had never heard it before. But regardless, I knew exactly what she was saying. I knew that her husband’s truck had broken down on his way home, and that’s why he was running late. Even though I didn’t know the direct translations for the words being said to me, I knew what they meant.

I remained in that area for a total of six months, and it proved to be pretty detrimental to my Spanish. It was hard not to compare myself to other Missionaries and see how well they spoke. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I really had improved in my ability to speak while serving in that small branch. By the end of that area, I had been a Missionary for almost eleven months and I was comfortable with my Spanish. Comfortable, in the sense that I could talk to people and hold a basic conversation without freezing up or getting lost when they asked me a question. I felt comfortable with approaching people on the street and striking up a conversation, but I in no way felt fluent or like I had mastered the language.

Seeing the Fruits of Labor

I then got transferred to a small town of about 5,000 people forty-five minutes South of Albuquerque. The area was predominantly Spanish. I stayed in this area for four months, and this is where I really began to feel confident in my Spanish. And that’s all to two people: Elder Carrillo and Hermana Hernandez.

Hermana Hernandez was a member of the small Spanish branch that we covered. She owned a little Mexican Restaurant in the area that we covered. On any given day of the week, we could walk into her restaurant and she would feed us. All that she asked in return was that we offered one day of service each week in the restaurant. We would do anything from wash dishes, to sweeping, to wiping down tables, and even cooking on rare occasions. After a month or two, she was even teaching me how to work the cash register. As we would be working in her restaurant, we would speak Spanish. She understood English perfectly, but couldn’t really speak it all that well. This was very helpful, as we could ask her questions or how to say specific things in English, and she would then respond in Spanish. This was the most exposure that I had had in almost six months. She would correct my Spanish in such a loving way.

I remember one day in specific, I asked her, “Que me quieres hacer?” I had finished sweeping, and I was asking her what else she would like me to do. She replied with, “No, Elder. Se dice asi: Que quieres que haga?” Another time I asked her if she would like me to wash the dishes. I had said, “Quiere que lavo los trastes?” She said, “Ay, ay, Elder. No, se dice asi: Quiere que lave los trastes?” I was so confused, because this was really my first time really trying to use of the subjunctive tense. As I think back to those experiences, I cringe just thinking that I would phrase something in that way. But it all comes with experience.

Elder Carrillo was an older Missionary, with just about three months left in his Mission by the time that I met him. One day he said to me, “Quiero que sepa.” I think it was pretty obvious that I didn’t understand by the look on my face. Him, together with Hermana Hernandez, gave my Spanish a makeover! As I left that area, I carried about fifteen months under my belt. I had never been more confident in my ability to speak. I soon found that other people were coming to me asking me questions in Spanish. It was quite the interesting switch, and it felt really good.

Conclusion

After being out for around fifteen months, I soon found that even after writing a word down in my notebook, I wouldn’t have to go back and review its meaning or re-memorize it later. Upon writing it once, it was instantly stuck in my head. I also found that I didn’t have to think about what I was going to say anymore. The promise given in D&C 100:6 was all too literal when it says, “For it shall be given you in the very hour, yea, in the very moment, what ye shall say.” I felt that every day. I no longer had to worry about translating from Spanish to English in my head. I no longer had to think about which tense I was going to use. I would open my mouth, and words would flow out. And that’s not to say that I didn’t mess up from time-to-time or make mistakes, but I was no longer self-conscious about speaking, and my confidence was higher than ever.

As my Mission came to a close, I stood in the airport terminal reflecting on the past two years, and the sheer amount I had learned. It never ceased to amaze me that I could speak Spanish like a native. But that shouldn’t really surprise me, as the Spirit can speak through any language. I’m still a work in progress, but I’m getting better. And now I can speak in two.

1 Comment on Spanish: My Experience Learning a Language

  1. Learning Spanish and other foreign languages is very important. Studies show that biligual people have many advanges, but in my opinion, the most important advange is the ability to talk about the Word of God to more and more people.

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