I speak two languages. My first language is English. My second is Spanish. There was a time not long ago when Spanish became my primary language. Now, I use it primarily for work and to chastise my children when we’re in public.
My Spanish-speaking obsession began after a short-term trip to Tijuana, Mexico the summer before my junior year of high school. I stayed with a woman named Nimpha and took bucket showers. At the end of that first trip, my Spanish consisted of “Thank you for sharing your home.” “I am afraid of spiders.” and “Where is the bathroom?”
My next trip across the Mexican border was with the Baptist church, where we drove a school bus down to Tijuana to build houses. We tent-camped in a field I’d never be able to find again. Apparently, it used to be a chicken farm, and there was “evidence” of chickens mixed in with the dust where I pitched my tent because about two weeks after I returned to Seattle, I contracted a terrible rash, got pneumonia, and ended up in the hospital for a week with a disease one only gets from breathing in chicken feces.
Pultry poop, pneumonia, and rashes did not deter me. I had fallen in love with international life and dove into language learning the way some people dive into fresh pools of water on a hot day—head first. A year later, I marched up the gangplank of a missionary ship and sailed through the major ports of Latin America for two years.
I proceeded to go after the Spanish language with all the force of a wrecking ball.
I bought a Spanish Bible and memorized John 3:16, along with the Romans Road. I listened to praise and worship music in Spanish all day long. I wrote out my testimony, had a friend translate it into Spanish, and I memorized it. I also started hanging out with a very handsome Panamanian man who was willing to talk with me in his native language.
It took a little bit but a passion for Jesus eventually rushed upon me the way my passion for Spanish did. Despite being raised in a Christian home with a very devout mother, I went through a time when I was reluctant to join the faith. I was interested in theology, and social justice, but I was also infatuated with boys, parties, and a general willfulness to do my own thing. There was a persistent, overriding sense that God was chasing me down, but I did my best to ignore God. The game change occurred when I woke up inside a small tent in the middle of Eastern Washington, with a raging hangover and just enough clothes on my body to tell me I hadn’t given it all away, but not enough clothes to make me feel chaste. The person lying next to me was a complete stranger.
I crawled out of the stifling tent. My head pounded like someone had hit it with a hammer. I can’t recall what I drank the night before, but I do remember that I didn’t like myself very much upon waking. I stumbled a few yards away and knelt down in the grass beside a picnic bench.
I recognized, albeit with reluctance, that although I wanted to do life on my own terms, life’s terms were cutthroat and merciless. Waking up alone in a suffocatingly hot tent with very little recollection of the previous night, altered my understanding of independence. So, in a stunning moment of clarity, I gave up my very fragmented heart to Jesus and asked God to help me. In exchange, I vowed to follow God’s ways and put God first in my life from then on.
Consequently, a spiritual hunger so ravaging and all-consuming overwhelmed me, so much so that I have never looked back. Since that morning outside the tent, there have been many times in my twenty-two years of following Jesus that I wished I could throw in the towel, leave Christianity well enough alone, but there on that grassy field by the picnic bench, I made a promise.
I still liked boys too much and I will always have a natural bent toward willfulness, but I stopped drinking, stopped lying to my parents, asked for a Bible for my birthday and ran after the divine like I was Eric Liddel trying to feel God’s pleasure.
At about the six-month mark into my speaking-Spanish mission, it dawned on me that learning a new language is difficult. Yes, I had a knack for it, and my accent wasn’t half bad, but I hit a wall. I realized if I didn’t make some sort of concerted effort, I’d plateau and stagnate. I’d settle into bad grammar and consistent mistakes, with just enough language to communicate what I was trying to say, but never good enough to be a real Spanish speaker.
So, I went to the ship library and checked out The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe in Spanish. I read it cover to cover. I wrote down every new word, and practiced each word in conversation. Whenever I was with a group of Spanish speakers, I’d undoubtedly be confused and wouldn’t understand half of what was going on. I knew if I stuck with it, the fog would eventually clear.
On the faith front, I came to the realization that there is a cost to this Christianity thing. Up until about six months into my life on the ship, sacrifice and following God was one great adventure. Then, I found out that the man I was in love with was attracted to someone else. It devastated me. Then, my friend got the job on the ship that I wanted. The green-eyed monster swept me up. I was astounded at my own dark heart.
I ran into a girl who read her Bible in the hallway in our dormitory area on the ship every morning. I’d walk out of my cabin and she’d be kneeling down, pouring over Scripture like a blind person who’d just been given sight. She explained that her time on the ship had been difficult and God had humbled her. She was radiant.
As she told me her story, there I felt like the radio was being turned to a new station. God was offering to take me into new territory, a land whose boundaries are built and maintained from love.
I learned more Spanish and grew at ease in the language. I could conjugate in past, present, and future. My vocabulary expanded. I stayed with a family in Mexico for a week and got along with the people as if I belonged there. Months sailing around Central America helped. Over all, my Spanish improved.
After my two years on the ship I went home for three months and then boarded a plane to Temuco, Chile to meet my boyfriend’s family. I wanted to study his culture.
I felt nervous about many things, except my Spanish.
I was a fluent Spanish speaker.
When I sat down for the first afternoon meal with his brothers, dad, and step-mom, family banter back and forth, television blaring behind us, I had no idea what they were talking about. They were not speaking Spanish. It was something else with a few Spanish words thrown in for good keeping. It was just like listening to Charlie Brown’s teacher. Wah, wah, wha wah wha, wah.
Day by day, I learned to hear their Spanish and recognize it for what it was. My own tongue grew accustomed to the slang and slant of the language. After my time in Chile, I flew to Buenos Aires and lived in the capital of Argentina for three months. Their language was as different from Chile as night is from day. They have this Italian singsong lilt and a bold clarity that Chilean Spanish lacks. But it’s the same language.
Over the years, my journey with God took form. I learned to hear the comings and goings of the Spirit, to understand the ways in which God does things. That the way up is down in God’s family, the way toward real love is through forgiveness and generosity, that the way toward freedom is through death and resurrection, and clarity is discovered through God’s Word.
My Spanish also took form. I went on a trip to Nicaragua and preached to hundreds of women. It was incredible. I worked from time to time helping translate for people. Most years, I went to Chile on vacation and enjoyed a few weeks of Spanish practice. Then, seven years ago, I made the gutsiest decision of my life. I moved to Chile.
I was forced to do all my transactions, the kids’ homework, their tests, every piece of public life in Spanish. There, in the middle of expatriate living, I realized just how much it takes to learn a new way. It takes everything you’ve got. You can’t hang out in the margins and think you’ll learn a new language. You have to forget you ever had a first language. You have to make a fool of yourself and let people talk to you like you’re five years old, precisely because you sound like you’re five years old.
I was fluent but I had only skimmed the surface of Spanish. I had never plumbed the depths of the language. I had never immersed myself for long enough to let my mind be formed in it. As one year turned to two years, then to three, my Spanish almost became more natural to me than English. After all my years of study and travel, the language finally took up residence in my mind.
Ironically, it was also in Chile, when my dear faith was tested. My marriage crashed, the people I thought I could count on were unavailable, and I was left alone in a foreign country with a broken relationship and two children. I spent the better part of six months weeping over the outcome of my life. I was disappointed with God, with humanity, and ashamed. It seemed that everything I had, all that I knew was rent from me. I doubted everything I had learned. Much of the confident faith I had once possessed was stripped away. The pop-culture Christianity of follow-Jesus-and-everything-will-work-out-for-the-best turned to ashes. Over time, the faith that survived was the faith I had discovered in the hidden places. Those things God has been trying to pour into me all these years, the stuff about true significance and the unseen, the truths about the obscure life, that God loves the lowly and binds up the brokenhearted, that God is near to the crushed in spirit, and lifts up those who are bowed down became my Northern Lights.
Language learning and the Christian faith have something in common. One can attend Bible studies her whole life, go to Sunday school week in and week out, and know front to back the principles and the precepts of the faith, but it’s the heart that must learn the language of God by immersion.
Cover image by Dan Gold