How My Life Changed When I Put My Spanish to Use

When I was 8 years old, I dreaded Monday and Wednesday afternoons from 3-4:30pm. My mom, like any mom, wanted nothing but the best for me and my brother, so she signed both of us up for after-school Spanish classes.

She wanted to give us both the gift of speaking a foreign language, and she hoped that one day we both would obtain fluency in a language other than our native tongue.

Looking back on my childhood, I am eternally grateful for the opportunity that she gave me, but I sure did not feel that way when I was in the moment.

I complained about going, fought her endlessly about it, and did anything I could to get out of the lessons. I would always complain about having to go to “extra school” after the regular school day and about how learning a second language was pointless.

Against my will, I continued in the lessons until my school began to incorporate Spanish into their curriculum a few years later.

Five years later, I began high school, where it was required that all students complete at least two years of a foreign language, per Illinois state law. My high school offered two options: Spanish and French.

I wanted to be different and select French, but deep down I knew that I had a pretty solid background in Spanish, so I decided to stick with it, but only for another two years.

My freshman year Spanish class was pretty easy and I actually started, dare I say, to enjoy my Spanish class. I got an A my first semester and I was doing pretty well my second semester, despite the many personal family issues I was having.

The end of the year rolled around and I finished the class with a 92.49999. An “A” was 92.5+. Being the driven student that I am, I begged my teacher to give me an A.

I told him how it had been a hard semester for me and how my parents got divorced and my dad had a heart attack all within the four months of the semester. He didn’t care. He gave me a B+. I was furious and I decided that one more year of Spanish was all that I could handle if my teacher next year was like him.

August of my sophomore year of high school rolled around and I got my schedule for the year. I was SO grateful that he was not my teacher again.

Instead, I had a woman who ended up being one of the most influential teachers in my educational career. She completely changed my outlook on Spanish, and she made me genuinely start to enjoy learning a new language and culture.

She made it fun and interactive and gave me a new perspective on learning. I had another wonderful teacher my junior year and between those two teachers, I learned a lot.

Spring of my junior year rolled around and my mom surprised me and my brother with a cruise to Mexico, Belize, and Honduras.

That was the first time I had ever traveled to a Spanish-speaking country and it was unlike anything I had ever experienced before.

Even though I was in a foreign land, I felt connected to the country and to the people, because I was able to communicate with them in their native language.

Sure, most of the people and the vendors that I interacted with probably spoke English, but it was obvious that they appreciated the fact that I tried to communicate with them in their language.

When I returned home from Spring Break I felt like I never had before. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was exactly, but it was like an internal fire was lit inside of me, and it was fueling my desire to explore what else the world had to offer.

I was sitting in my AP US History class one day and I began researching “International Volunteer Opportunities”.

Endless opportunities resulted from my search, and I began my quest to find my next adventure. After careful research and consideration,

I selected a volunteer program based in an orphanage in El Salvador. I thought this was the perfect opportunity because it would give me the chance to explore a foreign country, bring joy to orphans, and give me the opportunity to practice my Spanish skills.

I can still vividly remember all of the emotions I felt during the six weeks between when I booked my trip and when I was scheduled to leave. The day before I left I was at my summer internship.

I received a phone call around 8:45am from the director of the organization that I was volunteering with. As soon as I picked up the phone I had a bad feeling about what she was going to say and I knew something was wrong just from the tone of her voice.

She proceeded to tell me that the missionaries who I and several other volunteers would be staying with were robbed at gunpoint the night before.

Luckily no one was hurt and no volunteers were staying with them at the time, but the thieves did manage to get away with a many of their personal belongings.

Imaginably, they were very shaken up from the experience and had suspended all volunteer operations until further notice.

There was a volunteer team in the Dominican Republic that had a few vacancies for that week, so the other volunteers and I were told that if we were open to it, we would have the opportunity to volunteer there instead.

With less than 24 hours until my flight was supposed to leave, my mind began to go a million miles an hour. First off, I had just turned 17 a week prior.

My parents were already hesitant to let me go prior to this situation. What would they say when I told them about the robberies? Would they not let me go?

I was very grateful that the missionaries were okay and that I had another opportunity to volunteer, but I was a little sad that I was not going to be working in an orphanage and having the opportunity to interact with children 24/7.

I had absolutely no idea what kind of work that I would be doing there, but without hesitation, I accepted my spot on the team in the Dominican Republic and called Delta Airlines to change my flight.  Less than 18 hours after the changes were finalized, I boarded a plane by myself to Santiago, DR.

At this point in my Spanish career, I had been taking classes for nine years or so, and I would say my skills were “conversational/advanced conversational”.

My first major Spanish interaction of the trip came on the airplane when the flight attendants passed out the customs forms.

Without hesitation, I confidently filled everything out and I actually understood everything on the form. I was so proud that I was able to not only fill it out myself but also help the woman sitting next to me.

When the plane landed, I claimed my bags and proceeded to customs. I walked up to the agent and spoke to him in Spanish, remembering the chapter about airport travel and customs that we had covered in my Spanish class months prior.

I was able to answer all of his questions without pause or hesitation, and he seemed equally as impressed with me as I was with myself. He stamped my passport, and I walked off to find my hosts.  

My first few days in the DR consisted of a wide variety of different volunteer activities that ranged from manual labor, to playing baseball with a local youth team, to reading books to pediatric cancer patients, to community outreach programs.

Although this is not the type of work that I had anticipated doing when I originally planned to volunteer, I am eternally grateful that I was exposed to that type of work because it inspired me to spend the majority of this past May in Puerto Rico doing relief work from Hurricane Maria.

On my fourth day in the DR, my volunteer group headed out to the remote villages located in the mountains of the DR. When we arrived in our small bus, I remember how excited the children were, and how they swarmed the front of the van.

I stepped off the bus into the stifling Caribbean heat, and the children instantly came up to me and the other volunteers, as if we were some type of local celebrities. I walked out of the path of the steps to the bus and began to interact with the children.

They were excited that we were visiting, but most of them stared at us as if we were aliens from a different planet. I could tell that they had never been exposed to people of our culture, skin tone, and language before. 

Most of the children just stood smiling at us, but there was this one little girl that stood out to me. She started towards the back of the group of children that surrounded the bus, but she slowly inched her way to the front. I could tell she wanted to communicate with me, but she did not think I spoke Spanish because I was speaking to the other volunteers in English- a language that was foreign to her.

I bent over and said to her, “Hola, me llamo Claire. Cómo te llamas?” Which translates to “Hi, my name is Claire. What is your name?”. The instant I said that her eyes lit up and she had this huge smile plastered on her face. She replied back to me and began conversing with me in Spanish.

And that was it. That was the moment that it hit me. It was at that specific moment when I realized why my mom and my school system put such an emphasis on learning a second language. This is why she wanted to give me the opportunity to learn a foreign language at such an early age.

This is the whole reason why anyone learns a second language. To communicate with other people. People from all different parts of the world, races, and walks of life. My knowledge of the Spanish language enabled me to communicate with this small girl, no more than 6 years old, who lived in the most remote villages of the Dominican Republic. Now I understood the beauty of this gift that I have. The gift that I once despised having to pursue.

I was so moved by my experience that as soon as we returned back to the volunteer base and I had Wi-Fi/cell service, I called my mom and thanked her. I also apologized for giving her such a hard time about going to the classes when I was a child.

I understood what a gift she had given me, and quite frankly I felt a bit guilty about not realizing it sooner. That night, I was enjoying a papaya smoothie in the lobby of the “motel” where the base was located and I committed to becoming fluent in Spanish.

A few moments later, a woman about ten years my senior came up and sat down next to me. She explained to me that she was on a business trip and asked me why I was in the DR.

We spoke in English and then I asked her if we could practice Spanish. She happily agreed and we spoke for a good amount of time. I was so proud that I was able to maintain a 50-minute conversation in only Spanish. This conversation sealed the deal for me and reaffirmed my desire for full fluency in this beautiful language.

I believe that knowledge of the Spanish language, even if it only reaches an elementary level, is imperative for every person to have. Sure, I am a bit biased, but according to Babble Magazine, Spanish is the second most commonly spoken language in the world, with English being the third.

My knowledge of Spanish has given me countless travel opportunities, multiple job opportunities, and friends in several different countries. Since that moment in the rural villages of the Dominican Republic, I decided to pursue a second major in Spanish at my university. I have also studied abroad in Barcelona, traveled in multiple Spanish speaking countries, and I have had the opportunity to be a part of Hurricane Maria relief work in Puerto Rico. 

I am a full supporter of the saying that “everything happens for a reason” and the more I think about it, so many things had to fall into place for me to have shared that special moment with the little girl.

There was a reason that I was in that remote mountain village at that exact moment and there was a reason that my mom put me in Spanish classes when I was younger.

Some of life’s most precious moments come when you least expect them and you are not looking for them. That precious moment that I shared with the young girl is when my outlook on life and languages changed for the better.

It made me realize the value of learning a second language and appreciating a different culture. That moment is the reason that I can proudly say that today I am fluent in Spanish and that I am such a strong advocate of learning a second language.

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