The Way I Was

How to Learn a Foreign Language: I became a Spanish orphan

1972--I wanted to look like Lori Partridge, but my teacher thought I looked like a Spanish orphan.
1972–I wanted to look like Lori Partridge, but my teacher thought I looked like a Spanish orphan.

I’ve been thinking about how we become the people we are.

Becoming is a theme I like to explore… I wrote a memoir about becoming a writer.

And I’m always becoming something new. These days I’m working on becoming someone who understands multiple languages (or tries to). I wonder where and how my fascination with languages started. I didn’t grow up in a multi-linguistic environment.

Maybe it began when in Kindergarten, my Sunday School Teacher taught us to sing I’ve got the joy-joy-joy-joy down in my heart” in Chinese. I felt very clever. I like feeling clever.

For years, I sang that Chinese song. It went like this (I don’t know the Chinese characters, so I’ll have to write it in transliteration): “I’ve got the peesah-passah-kooki-mahcki down in my heart….”

Okay, so she only taught us a few of the words in Chinese.

Actually, as I discovered many years later, she wasn’t teaching us Chinese at all. Eventually I learned that this verse of the Joy-joy song goes, “I’ve got the peace-that-passeth-understanding down in my heart.”

But my five-year-old heart was so enamored with the idea of speaking another language, any other language, that I invented an opportunity to speak Chinese. I already sensed the power of words and I wanted to know them all, every word in the whole world. (Greedy for words, that’s what I was!)

At the same time, I intuitively understood something profound (as children often do). Ideas and concepts (such as “peace”) are so vast and mysterious that no single language could adequately express my thoughts. Children, still immersed in the dramatic wonder of language acquisition, understand some things that we adults barely remember we knew. Learning a new language takes me back into that time when naming something was powerful, when just speaking the word peace might conjure peace, (Friede, Paix, Paz, Shalom)  as if wishing it and then saying it could make peace reign. (Couldn’t it?)

And then, in third grade I, a child of 100% German-Lutheran heritage, became a Spanish orphan, when my school put on an operetta.

An operetta is a cheesy musical for children actors, often with a moral message. Ours was called The Man With the Crooked Nose. I played Carmencita, a Spanish waif living at a Swiss orphanage run by (come on, guess….)

Of course. The Man with the Crooked Nose!

As Carmencita, I lived in an orphanage in Switzerland founded by the man with the crooked nose. He collected German orphans, French orphans, Dutch and Norwegian orphans. It annoyed me that we all spoke only English. We each knew only one word in our mother-tongues. Yes…  Si… Ja…. Oui…

We bickered mildly about which way of saying “yes” was the right “oui.” But in true operetta fashion, soon (and without any believable motivation for doing so) we all joined hands and sang (in American-accented English, of course):

Well, who cares
as long as we
agree
with one another?  

But by then I knew it wasn’t that easy for people to get over their differences, especially when only in operettas do people from all those different countries speak the same language.

Maybe that’s how I became someone who always wants to learn another language. I think language-learning is important for understanding, which is important for peace.

And maybe you’ve figured out that this post is introducing a new series for my blog–language learning, why and how.

What’s your second language? (or third or fourth?) Or which one would you like to speak? 

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23 thoughts on “How to Learn a Foreign Language: I became a Spanish orphan”

  1. Great post. There is something about the rhythm of words that speak even when we don’t understand them. But it’s imp to remember that that’s how far it goes. Sometimes, our misunderstandings of other languages are hilarious, sometimes damaging. Yes, it isn’t easy for people to get over their differences. Perhaps it’s not always desirable to do so? A very sensitive post.

    1. Hi B.W.–I’ve been peeking in at your blog for almost a year now. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

      A very insightful comment. Is it always desirable for us to “get over” our differences? No. Not when “getting over” them, means tolerating abominable behavior (I’m thinking of the way the the Allies “got over” their differences with Hitler because they preferred peace at all cost over fighting to put a halt to atrocities.)

      I would rather not think about the complexities of the world–things were so much easier after all when I was a Spanish orphan.

  2. Muy interesante! I speak Spanish but tried to learn German and French from my kids when they took those courses in high school. You’re love for words is infectious.

    1. Thank you, Sylvia–that’s what I hope. Because you know where my love for the word really comes from, and it ought to be infectious, or it’s not worth much.

      I speak German fluently, and am working on French and Hebrew right now.

      Spanish is on my list as my next language. I’m hoping to dig into it next year. My brother (in his 40’s) is doing very well learning it. I’m really proud of him, and that’s one of the reasons this series is dear to my heart.

  3. First of all, thanks for the deep chuckle I got when I found out your Chinese wasn’t quite as Chinese as you thought. I remember most of the operettas we put on, too. I thought I was quite an actor! The German I learned in high school has mostly left my pea-sized brain, but once in a while I can recall a word or two. I’ve learned American Sign Language in bits and pieces, but wish I could learn more. I keep yearning to learn Spanish and will force myself to step outside my comfort zone to do so….some day. Meanwhile, I will take great joy from reading your words of wit and wisdom. Thank you my friend.

    1. You’re so kind. And thanks for commenting, because sometimes I feel like I’m writing into deep space (or talking to a wall) and I wonder whether nobody is reading? But lately I’ve begun to get feedback, and know that people are actually reading, and enjoying, my blog–which keeps me writing it.

      Let’s maybe learn Spanish together some day next year! It would be fun! Sylvia could help us, I’m sure.

  4. Again, a beautiful post…and entertaining, too. I vividly remember being thrown off a bus on a dreary Friday afternoon in spring in Dijon, France, being 11 years old. Our teacher waved at us and said: ‘See you Monday’, heading off to the wine bars. While we had to spend the first time abroad alone with our new found host families, and without our friends. And I had only learned French for a few months then…it was scary beyond belief. And then I was picked up by my family, and all fears disappeared. They were lovely. They were caring. And I had a reason to learn their language, because I liked them so much that I wanted to communicate with them…we’re celebrating our 25th anniversary next year. I cannot wait to see them and speak French…

    You know I speak a few more languages, but it is not about ticking them off a list. It is about being able to communicate without a barrier or an inbuilt blocker which is translation. Just like travelling for me is more than being at a beach, it is about being and living in a culture, language helps me fully arrive.

    1. I forgot to tell you–my German tandem-partner’s son just had a French exchange student, and next year he gets thrown off the bus in France. I wish we did more of that kind of thing here.

      And I so agree with you–traveling isn’t about mere fun and entertainment, it’s about getting to know the wider world. And language is a tool for that.

  5. I loved this post, Tracy. My h.s. language experience was in Kansas, and the short hand/typing teacher was filling in for the Spanish teacher. Not the most motivating class…
    But now, thanks to you, I have peesah-passah-kooki-mahcki down in my heart….

    1. Thank you, Marylin, I’m having a lot of fun blogging these days. (

      Peesah-passah is the best thing for opening up the mind to language-learning, once we grasp a child-like capacity for enjoying it, playing with words, it becomes as natural as laughter….

      Watch Spanish cartoons aimed at preschoolers, if you can. You’ll be surprised how much comes back to you, (despite the poor teaching, which was likely a bunch of grammar drills I’m guessing) how quickly you’ll find a door into the language.

  6. …takes me back into that time when naming something was powerful, when just speaking the word peace might conjure peace, (Friede, Paix, Paz, Shalom) as if wishing it and then saying it could make peace reign. (Couldn’t it?)”
    I think it CAN, Tracy. A word voiced from the heart is a prayer and carries the energy of actualization within its sounding – so all together now, Friede, Paix, Paz, Shalom and every other language on the planet!

  7. Greedy for words! Love! My second language is cat. But my third language is French, that I was forced to take in college like it was my job. Twelve hours a week for two years, with 85% of my grade resting on my oral final. The horror! Fabulous post, my friend!

    1. I’m always amazed and surprised at how many people know a number of language. (But you’re the only one I know who speaks cat.) Do you ever get an opportunity to use French?

      1. Imagine that? I’m the only person you know who speaks cat? Go figure! 🙂 I never get to use my French except for the random high school kid who needs a little practice – and to say that I’m rusty with the language is being nice since I don’t get to speak it very often!

        1. I just learned that my son speaks cat. He’s evidently recently learned it now that he has one. He was here to visit me, and his girlfriend told me she’s sure he’s going to turn into a “crazy cat lady” when he gets old. (He’s too young and definitely guy-ish to turn into one in the next few decades…)

          As you know, use-it-or-lose it applies to languages. After 20 years of not speaking it, I totally lost the German I had once been completely fluent in. I now watch German television shows on line, and correspond with some German pen pals at least once a week, and read a German magazine/newspaper a few times a week. Takes about 2-3 hours of my life, each week. The payback is that I’m fluent again.

          1. What a laugh I got at the vision of your son being a ‘crazy cat lady’! And good for you brushing up on your German – I should do the same with my French…but then again, it would distract me from being a master in cat language. What to do?! 🙂

  8. Tracy, if only we had Spanish immersion classes available to us when we attended kindergarten! My daughter just learned about such classes offered to Ava and Grace at their future elementary school. I will definitely encourage Karin to have the girls take advantage of such an opportunity. Once you’re in the class, you keep the same classmates through fifth grade — thus, becoming part of a special”family.”

    1. What a wonderful opportunity for them. I have a friend who teaches at an immersion school in Minnesota–math and science. And it’s amazing. I know a number of families whose children are bilingual, and it often gives those kids an edge when they go to apply for college & jobs. But more importantly, those children have a self-assurance about them. They know they’re citizens of the world.

      I also like that they’d keep the same classmates for a number of years. I think one of the best things that happened in my childhood was the stability of having a consistent set of classmates.

  9. Fantastic post Tracy! I started learning French in high school, became fluent while studying abroad in college and honed my skills leading bike trips there after college. We started both of our boys early–in the French International School in Philadelphia. My ten year-old is now fluent and our four year-old is on his way. More than anything else, I notice that they have a better sense of “other” than I ever did. They have a greater sense of the world and the people who inhabit it. I am thrilled that they have a wider experience and can’t wait to see how it develops….

    1. Yea for you! I wish I had raised my children bi-lingual. I spoke German often to them when they were small, but there was no immersion school and absolutely NO ONE else ever spoke German to them, so as they got older, it made them SO angry when I talked it. But they could understand it, the little rats, and surprisingly, can still understand it a little. They don’t however speak it.

      I’m sure it will open amazing doors for your children. We have friends who raised their boys French/English and a quite a bit German– at a French International School. Besides the language-fluency, the education was also superior and helped make them world-citizens. When it came time to go to college, they were able to choose between American, Quebecois and French institutions because they were qualified for all. It sure will be interesting to see where it takes your sons. To great heights, I’m sure…

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