Learning to Speak the Second Time
I believe in the power of knowledge, in the necessity of crossing boundaries, in empathy, and cross-cultural exchange. I believe that major conflicts arise when there is a breakdown in communication, and that reestablishing an understanding is key to reconciling differences. Above all, I believe in the one thing that achieved all of these pieces in my life: leaning another language.
I began to study Spanish when I was 15 years old, an age which many told me too late to attain full fluency. Yet I naively assumed the process would be easy enough. After all, my grandfather was a fluent Spanish speaker, and I am a native to the Southwest; nearly three fourths of my high school class was of Hispanic descent.
What little I knew of the frustration that lay ahead! I am a perfectionist, used to rapidly comprehending problems and articulating their solutions. But in the early days, I stumbled over words and was teased for my accent. Upon reaching college, the challenges became even more overwhelming. At the end of the first day, my Spanish professor assigned a short essay to write. Having not understood him, I was the only student to arrive to the following class empty-handed.
During this period, I lost certainty in my belief of acquiring a second language. I longed to drop the Spanish class and began to brush aside dreams of bilingualism and study abroad. Yet, in the face of such doubts, small fragments of my progress provided enough encouragement that I pressed on. During rush hour in Grand Central Subway Station, a frantic woman turned to me. With a few simple Spanish phrases, I instructed how she and her two children could receive a ticket.
This instant, among others that followed, taught me about the power that comes with learning another language – the power to help, to explore, to understand. I believe that with this power comes a responsibility. Learning a second language has taught me to behave with patience and empathy towards others, particularly those who are also struggling on their journey towards bilingualism.
Recently I completed a 4-month-long study abroad program in Havana, Cuba. I was required to complete a 20 page research paper written in Spanish in addition to the full course load I took at the local Cuban university. Moreover, my stay coincided with a well-publicized period of political turbulence and uncertainty in the country. Initially I feared my ability to accomplish these tasks under the given circumstances. However, not only did I excel in my studies, I received the rare opportunity to explore a country that remains an enigma to most Americans.
I sit now among my suitcases, ready to embark on another academic adventure further south than I have ever been before. This time I do not fear the mistakes I will make, and I no longer doubt my capabilities. Instead, I look with eagerness towards the knowledge and insight I will uncover. Guiding me throughout this process is the second language that I now speak. Y esto es lo que yo creo.
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