All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Acts 2:4
A rush of wind and suddenly you’re fluent? If only learning a new language were always this easy.
I’ve spent the last three years trying to learn Spanish. Back in 2006, when I first realized we would spend a year in Latin America, I started listening to audiotapes like a man on a mission. Thirty hours of repetition later, I knew quite a few phrases and I had started to get a sense for verbs in the present tense. But when I tried to watch TV shows in Spanish – a dubbed version of The Simpsons, for example – I still needed English-language subtitles to understand exactly why Homer was running for Springfield sanitation commissioner.
For the next two years I set Spanish on the shelf in order to learn the more, um, “useful” languages of Greek and Hebrew, but by 2008 there was nothing for it: It was time to take the plunge into full Spanish immersion.
First a three-week “Spanish Language for Ministry” program in Cuernavaca, where I learned the very, very basics by day and lived in a Mexican home by night. The first week of the program was wonderful, full of the adrenaline rush of new things, but by the second week I was frustrated at the slow progress I was making. I wasn’t learning as much as I’d wanted to as fast as I’d wanted to. Yet I got over many fears during those three weeks, and had some of my first great triumphs of using Spanish out in the real world.
Over the next several months I spent every weekend with a Mexican family. I tried sharing what we’d learned in Bible study with my very patient host mom, who was no doubt used to dealing with foreigners whose language skills were feeble at best. I talked Mexican soccer with my host dad, describing as well as I could how much I was enjoying attending soccer matches at the massive Mexico City stadiums. I had countless awkward conversations with their teenage kids, who had as little an idea of what to say to us as we did to them. And I watched hours of Spanish-dubbed Disney Channel TV shows with their youngest son, whose boundless energy brought a smile to everyone’s face. Yet in nearly every interaction I was painfully aware of my inability to speak in any tense other than the present. I cringed whenever I translated the tenses I was saying into English, imagining how awful I must sound. I knew I could do better with a good textbook and some well-organized teaching.
So in January and February I took six more weeks of Spanish language courses in a certified Spanish language school. We breezed through one textbook, supplementing its verb charts with computer-based exercises and in-class conversations. I gave oral presentations on current events and debated the merits of Guadalajara soccer teams with my teacher. I made lots of progress over these winter months, improving my ability to read, write, and speak the language of my new home country at a level and a pace that I’d always hoped for. And then, just as we were passing the halfway point of our second textbook, it was time to move again, out of the city – and far from any language school.
Over the next three months in the rural ranchlands of Jalisco I felt the well-structured grammar I’d learned in class slowly slip away, withering without the constant tending of daily homework and weekly exams. No doubt this feeling of hard-earned learning slipping through my fingers like sand contributed to the frustrated restlessness I couldn’t seem to shake off during the long, dry month of April.
And yet, as it so often happens, even while I was staring at the skies looking for answers, God was hard at work on the earth below. By May there were a handful of people around Lagos de Moreno who knew us by name and who seemed to relish the opportunity to speak with a couple of gringos from out of town. And somehow, over three months here, my ability to speak with them flourished.
“¿Que hay?” the barista at our favorite coffee shop says every time I walk in, using one of the Mexican equivalents of “What’s up?” He always seems to be expecting me – which makes sense, since I go there nearly every day. During the Mexican soccer season, Chris asked him where we could go in Lagos to watch a Chivas game. He recommended La Cura, a seafood bar where the most die-hard Chivas fanaticos gathered every Saturday night to watch their beloved Rebaño. Watching the Chivas-America Superclasico match there, shrimp-spiked michelada in hand, is a memory I’ll cherish nearly as much as the Superclasico we watched live at Estadio Azteca.
Across town, nearer to our apartment, is the Super-Fruteria El Gordo Salazar Jr. (phew!), the Lagos equivalent of Hyde Park Produce back home. The manager of the super-fruteria, a young guy with a big smile, has been super-friendly to us since the first time Chris stopped in for groceries. At first, I used to wait outside with our backpacks while Chris shopped, and the friendly fruteriero would ask Chris why I was afraid to come inside. When I finally did begin going inside the store – nearly every day – he grinned. “¿No tienes miedo?” You’re not afraid? No, I said, I’m not afraid, shaking my head with an embarrassed smile.
Now the fear, real or imagined, is a distant memory. On Wednesday he noticed my Chicago Fire jersey and asked me if I liked “el fut” (i.e. soccer). Of course, I answered. “Then are you going to watch the game today, Barcelona and Manchester United? Barcelona is my team. How about you?” Eeesh. I don’t really know, I told him, I only really watch Mexican and MLS soccer, not so much the European leagues… “Ah, but these teams are the best in the world! You have to watch. It’s on at 2:00 today. At 2:00!” So I did. And the next day, when he asked me if I watched the match, I could respond affirmatively. And congratulate him on his team’s victory.
Then there’s the owner of a local pizza place, where we always watch Mexican National Team matches. Like the barista, he, too, has a brother in the States he hasn’t seen in years.
And there’s the lady who runs the corner convenience store across the street. She always apologizes about the dust on the jugs of drinking water we buy, as if there were some way to avoid dust in this time before the rains.
There’s the man who runs a tailor shop next door to our apartment gate. Chris always says hello to him, but I continue to hold a silent grudge ever since he scolded Adam and I for playing soccer in the driveway.
There’s even my barber, who remembered me – with surprising joy – when I went in for a second haircut a few weeks ago. He hopes I’ll come back one more time before I leave.
And then, of course, there’s Luis. Yesterday he came by ostensibly to practice his English, but over the next three hours (!) we conversed in our usual English-Spanish hybrid – mostly Spanish, but trying English words whenever Spanish words didn’t seem to be hitting their mark. My conversations with Luis can be wide-ranging; at one point I explained that the lead singer of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Luis’s favorite band, is actually from California even though he writes all his songs about the Louisiana bayou. “Ah,” Luis says, nodding, “It would be like if you, from Chicago, were to write all of your songs about Lagos de Moreno!” Exactly. ☺
But yesterday Luis said something that surprised me. “Your Spanish,” he said,” has become much better.” Nah, I said, waving away what I took to be an empty compliment. “No,” he insisted, “When you first arrived you had so much fear, you’d hardly spoke at all. Now you’re speaking a lot, and getting better and better…” And it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, he might be right.
I’m a long way from being fluent, I really am. As one who’s loved grammar since he was in eighth grade (thanks, Mrs. Smith), it still pains me not to have proper verb conjugation at the tip of my tongue. My vocabulary is in the stratosphere compared to where it was a year ago and I’m even getting pretty good at understanding and pronunciation, but I still have interactions, like the unfortunate and, truth be told, rather terrifying interaction I had with an immigration official in the Guadalajara airport.
And yet, and yet. Little by little, step by step, paso a paso, I am beginning to speak in another language. As the Spirit, mysterious as she is, moving around like the wind, at her own pace, in her own unpredictable directions, is giving me ability. She has taken her sweet time, but she is filling me up, fanning my Pentecostal fire.
This slow-cooked version of speaking another language, filled as it is with imperfections, fits and false starts, and continued learning over a long period of time, is very different from how we often think of the Spirit’s work. It’s certainly different from the way we read the second chapter of Acts. WHOOOSH! a rush of wind and then BAM! you can suddenly speak another language – fluently and without missteps, we presume. If only it were that easy.
In the run-up to our Mexico trip I tried everything to get into Spanish-language ministry experiences. But always I faced the same roadblock. “Are you fluent? No? Well, then you're outta luck.” And so I was rejected from multilingual ministry because I wasn’t starting with fluency. And I thought, if this is our model, then our church will never be a multicultural church.
I’m not complaining about those rejections today, though there was a time when I did. Sometimes, I’ve come to understand, those decisions were, given the individual situation, for the best. And, as for me, I like my life the way it turned out better than the hypothetical way I’d planned it in my head. But I learned something from those come-fluent-or-go-home roadblocks, something that leads me to challenge the attitude that permits only the fluent to go forward.
In a sermon my first year at LSTC, my advisor, Dr. Richard Perry, urged the student body to take some uncomfortable first steps in learning a new language. He acknowledged that we’d probably feel pretty awkward at first, and tried himself to use a few Spanish words while we all laughed. But that was the point. Perfection – fluency – wasn’t where we started. A step was where we started. A word, two words, a phrase. Enough to make that first connection with someone else, someone you thought was so different you’d never bridge that gap. But you do, with those first awkward steps.
And then there will be a few more steps. And a few more after that. And eventually, the Spirit will fill you up. She will give you ability. Sometimes she takes her time, avoiding shortcuts and taking the long way round. But she will get you there. She will.
Eventually. Gracias a Dios.