The other day I had lunch with a retired friend I hadn’t seen for a long time. Apparently, last year about this time she decided out of the blue that she wanted to learn Spanish. Now, I’ve always heard that the best time to learn languages is infancy and early childhood. After that, the brain appears to get disgusted with the process and tries to throw a sort of Wet Blanket over the whole venture–as if it just can’t be bothered anymore. When she reported that after a year she hasn’t learned a lot of Spanish, I just smiled (a little smugly, I’m not happy to admit).
Then she told me about her method. She said she thought about it for a long time before setting it in motion, because it entailed stepping out of her comfort zone–something she wasn’t crazy about doing in her mid-70s. But her only real chance at this late date, she figured, was to go where she could hear Spanish spoken by native speakers. That’s Mexico, of course, but she just wanted to STEP out of her comfort zone, not do a GIANT LEAP off of it.
So she started out by going to Mass at a Spanish-speaking Catholic church–IN ENGLISH, though. After all, she didn’t want her head to explode. And it didn’t. However, she said she realized by the end of the English Mass that Spanish isn’t just a language. There’s a whole culture with it, even if the priest speaks entirely in English. So she had a new culture to learn, too. One wasn’t going to make sense without the other.
“You mean like food and music?” I asked her. But she couldn’t quite explain. She just knew she had to go to Mass in Spanish, which was kind of a scary prospect for her. But what could happen? Just embarrassment of the kind kids must feel when they go to a brand new school, she figured. And they get over it by going back day after day.
“So,” she said, “I just went back week after week. And in the past year, a whole new world has been opened to me. And I’ve learned that Spanish isn’t the main thing about learning Spanish. Even though that’s what I set out to do, it turned out not to be the main thing I’ve learned.” I still don’t quite get what she means, really–do you?
But I sense something about what she said. Maybe it’s a new kind of joy, expressed in a language you don’t have to be a kid to learn. Maybe we’re never too old to be unafraid; to go somewhere new; and give it a chance; and after that, another. And maybe one day a whole new world will open to us, too, as it did to my friend. Maybe it will come tiptoeing up behind us, speaking a language of joy we never knew was waiting there. We were so busy looking for the thing we came to get. And then we’ll notice…and understand…a little.