My Spanish self: How learning a new language has expanded more than my vocabulary

In high school, I hated my Spanish class and resisted learning the language every step of the way.

“Why should I?” I wondered. After all, the guy at my favorite taco stand already spoke English. So instead of listening, I passed notes, stared out the window, and generally didn’t participate unless called on. Señor Steel tried his best to pry my attention with references to The Grateful Dead –my only real subject of interest at the time.

“¿Jerry Garcia es muy bueno, no?” or “¿Dónde esta el concerto de Grateful Dead?”

But these days, as I spend my winters in Mexico, learning Spanish has become suddenly fascinating. Not only is it pragmatically useful for getting around, but it also serves to legitimize these overly long tropical sojourns. “To learn Spanish,” I explain studiously.

I’ve always been told there was some merit in learning another language. It’s a way to become more multi-cultural and less Anglo-centric, and it probably prevents Alzheimer’s. What I didn’t know is how adopting a new language would reformat my thinking.

During my winters in Mexico, I occupy a totally different brain, a more creative brain. My whole adjective-noun-verb worldview shifts, and I break from the bounds of English cliché. There I find a wide-open space of expression.With a limited vocabulary, I’m forced into new and sometimes absurd ways of saying things. “Is the machine sleeping?” I’ve asked a bartender when the jukebox wasn’t working. Instead of “The sun is setting,” I’ll say, “The sun says goodbye.” And after a particularly heady night at the disco, I might dub my potent margarita “El Diablo.”

Of course, I make inadvertent mistakes as well. Once, giving a friend directions to my hotel, I said “Va tres cuadernos alli!” or “Go three notebooks that way!” Instead of asking for a cuchillo — a knife – I’ve asked for a cucaracha. And purchasing aspirin for my headache, I’ve explained to the pharmacist, “Tengo un dolor de calabaza” (“There is a pain in my pumpkin”). And I always confuse the llenar-llevar-llamar-llegar verbs – just like I did back in high school Spanish class.

But here’s the thing: I no longer care. In this new language, I’ve become bold – a person unafraid of mistakes. Last season, I even became something of a poet, writing long, languorous love poems for my Spanish-speaking beau, Javier. He delighted in every misshapen line.

The day I left, Javier blew kisses from the pier as my boat pulled away. His messy black curls tossed in the wind. He looked so content, so noble, and so handsome that I was tempted to jump from the boat and swim back to him. Instead, I leaned over the bow and became a babbling Neruda: “You are like art!” I hollered. “You are like a light!” I took another stab at it: “Eres un pelicano!”

His huge white smile beamed at me like a lighthouse.

Whenever I return to the U.S., I slip back into familiar English, and become my regular self again — hemmed in by platitudes and worn-out idioms. I go back to saying dull things like “Hi, how are you?’ and “Nice weather.” But I still yearn for the sensual feel of “ias” and “ios” and “ientes” filling my mouth. I long to roll my ‘r’s. But mostly I miss my Spanish-self – that quirky, childlike, and unpredictable person I get to be for a few months each year.

When I think back to my high school Spanish class, I feel bad. Señor Steel tried everything to get me to learn Spanish. But if I didn’t understand it then, at least I get it now: to learn a new language is to make your mind new again. That is my point. This story is going to bed now, the words are sleepy, and my pumpkin is empty.

Christina Ammon is a freelance writer traveling around the world in a truck made of garbage. For more information about her and her travels, visit

[flickr image via lipar]