Like the majority of adult language learners who are not learning in an immersion-style setting, my vocabulary is bound by the content of my college coursework. I have made it to the 400 level of Spanish and my ears, eyes, and writing hand are fairly comfortable in the language; however, my speaking makes me want to hide, waiting for the words to arrive by pony express. I have had few experiences outside of the classroom to use the language. That is not to say that I don’t have the desire, but as a working mother with a busy family I have not found the time.
Tonight in our translation course, we learned the Spanish equivalent of ‘capital letter’ when our professor realized most of us did not know the word. What a simple thing that I never learned how to express. Suddenly, it was no longer impressive that I can talk about Latin American literature or history in Spanish. I didn’t even know how to say ‘capital letter.’ This is something that all elementary school children know how to say. And what a word it is: mayúscula. It just rolls off the tongue. You can hear a native speaker say it here by clicking on the speaker next to the word. Nice, isn’t it?
When I returned home, simultaneously puffed with pride about my Translation mid-term grade and deflated by my ineptitude, I looked for some Spanish picture books passed along to my son by a friend. They were buried in the toddler-high mountain of books in the corner of our living room. As I turned the cardboard lift-the-flap style pages, I realized I have a gap larger than a mayúscula in my vocabulary. I didn’t know the words for kettle (la pava), windsurfer (el tablista), wheelbarrow (la carretilla), or it’s cousin the forklift (la carretilla elevadora). How can I ever master a language in which I can’t talk about boiling water or hauling stuff? Don’t even get me started about my inability to request una manguera (garden hose) for my flowers. What a useless bore I will be unless I start talking to people about everyday life. There is a limit to how much others are willing to talk about magical realism in a certain Colombian writer’s works.
I had planned to focus on my copy of Spanish for Health Care Professionals to practice medical terminology prior to volunteering at a local health fair in the Hispanic community, but my reading list has now grown. You may also see me lifting the flap and making the connection between la escalera (ladder) and la escalera mecánica (escalator). Don’t judge. I am learning how to explain the easy and the hard way to get to the 5th floor.