My Ironic Journey Toward Learning the Spanish Language

The Spanish language is something of awe to me. I remember taking intro classes in High School and hating it with all of my being. I thought it was useless for an American like me to learn a language I would never use in the future. Little did I know how much this language would have in store for me in the future, and how God decided to use it to humble me.

When I arrived back from Oaxaca, Mexico in January of 2005, I was very distressed that I could not offer as much help as I wanted to during our 2 week mission trip. It was frustrating that I could not speak with a 5 year old child who wanted nothing more than a piggy back ride. In my misunderstandings, we occasionally were able to communicate through body language, but we wasted so much time that could have been spent helping and loving. It was then that I realized that if I wanted to be at all effective as an inner-city school teacher (or missioner for that matter, a vocation that was also on my heart), I was going to have to learn the language.

I got quick to work taking my first introduction to Spanish class with complete seriousness. My teacher was excellent, Maria Villalobos Beuhner. She made me work very hard and I was up to the task. She planted the seed in me that would eventually become my motivation to make Spanish my major.

After one year of constant study, I was off to Spain to study abroad. The language was very difficult at first, but by the grace of God, I was able to find new ways, new friends, and new dictionaries that helped me learn the language. After 3 months, the language was a part of me and I became addicted to it even though I didn’t completely understand it.

When I came back to the States, I attempted to find any outlet to use my Spanish, but it was not welcomed very well. I watched Spanish TV and read Spanish books, even completed a few more Spanish classes, but it didn’t seem like it was enough.

It was then that I met my wife, Maribel. We fell in love and have spoken the language ever since. I recommend falling in love with someone who speaks a different language than you do (as if you really had a choice). It forces you to listen to every single word whether you want to or not. It leaves no room for laziness and a lot of room for patience; these being two great foundations for marriage.

As it is, the language that I hated for so long and to a certain point despised has now become the language in which I love. God has given me this gift to love my wife, my mission, my students, and of course my family in a whole new way. It is a language of love that I personally cannot speak without smiling. It has humbled me in ways that are only explainable by God. For this gift, I am both in awe of God’s power to change people’s lives in creative ways and I am also thankful.

To top it all off, this is the language in which I have been given the mission of proclaiming the gospel both in my hometown of Grand Rapids and in my second home in Mexico. The Lord certainly does work in mysterious (and ironic) ways.

I confuse white people

I have a confession to make: I’m white.  I have another confession to add: I have a joke I like to play on folks of all races, but primarily white folks.  Allow me to elaborate…

¡Qué guapa!

My beautiful wife is from Mexico.  She came to the States when she was 18 and although her English is flawless (she graduated from one of our high-class universities), her accent can be pretty thick at times.

¡Qué guapo!

This is me.  I’m from west Michigan which has a history of being dutch and protestant.  Since I am neither dutch nor protestant, I find myself chucked into the American melting pot above a flame that sears me at times, but one that I can manage to live with.

When my wife and I go out, it never fails that every cashier, waiter or grocery store employee takes a good look at us and then promptly directs their first words to the tall white guy who they assume speaks English.

“Hello, can I help you?” they say.

This is when I get a bit mischievous.  Without prompting my wife, I look at the kind greeter with a confused look and then to my wife.  Then I break into Spanish mode.

“¿Qué dijo?” (What did he/she say?)

My wife plays along. She looks back at the greeter and translates for me in Spanish. We go like this until the greeter leaves us.

I don’t know if this joke is friendly or even courteous, but the teacher in me loves it. Did you know that a very small portion of Caucasians and african americans speak a language other than English?  Did you know that the majority of monolingual people on the entire planet live in the United States?  Don’t you find that quite odd considering how multi-cultural our Nation is?

About 10 years ago, my language skills were fossilized because I, like many Americans (especially in western Michigan), was under the impression that my mandatory language classes were a huge waste of time.  “Why do I need to learn Spanish?” I would say to myself.  “I’m never going to need it.”

Well, if you don’t know my story, the Spanish language has become my life.  I’ve been studying and traveling for seven years now and thanks to my favorite and most attractive teacher, my wife, my children and I are becoming bilingual.  We’ve registered with the “hispanic” Church in our diocese and our ministry has rooted itself in the foundation of the Spanish language and the various cultures that make up our faith community.

So what’s the point?  Well, God resurrected my fossilized linguistic skills and gave them life in abundance (against my will).  Without this gift, I would not have a job, I would not have become a missionary, I would not have met my wife and I probably would have ended up like the majority of the monolingual Americans who surround me.  Granted, I would probably still be happy and faithful to my God and His Church, but it wouldn’t have been so spicy.

Pica mucho

If you are one of the millions of monolingual Americans out there, go ahead, have at a language or two.  Conquer that tower of Babel and play some jokes on those who take the road most traveled.