A Little ... and Slowly

Yo entiendo más que yo hablo. After an eight-day streak of racing through the beginner and intermediate sections on Duolingo, the app tells me that I am 50 percent fluent in Spanish. I'm guessing that's the half made up entirely of reading and listening comprehension. I understand more than I speak.

"You read in Spanish today. Is that because you love it or because you're trying to preserve a family connection?" The friend who asked the question slips seamlessly between unaccented lower-48 American English and the bright, fast roll of an adopted West Indian home, so it's a fair question.

Being a child of Northern California and the western Nevada desert, I spent my earliest days surrounded by the reassuring sound of Mexican Spanish. At the gas station, in the grocery store, on the street ... over the burritos on the coffee shop's weekly buffet. Some of my classmates were first- or second-generation American. Others were the children of the migrant workers who tended and harvested the broad fields of green alfalfa and pungent onions on the outskirts of town.

A continent away, when it was time to choose a language to study in school, I had only two choices: French or Spanish. Many of my classmates chose French, thinking they'd never use either, but at least we were closer (by far) to Canada than Mexico. I, of course, chose Spanish. Not only because I preferred it, but because I was certain that it would be useful. French is common among diplomats. Spanish is common among humans.

Thus began six years of study in junior high and high school, followed by four years of study in college, leading to a minor in the subject, despite never using it outside a classroom in the northeastern United States. In all that time, I had one or maybe two instructors who were native speakers, and one or both of them spoke the fast Spanish of the islands. All of my other instructors spoke Spanish as a second language, picked up in an organized fashion in Puerto Rico, or the Dominican Republic, or Thpain. They didn't speak the language I heard in my head. Yet still, when I was in high school and stood to read a prayer at a Baha'i event, a Colombian friend of my family looked up to see who the Mexican girl was. 

Is there a family connection to the language? Only tangentially. People are frequently disappointed when they see my last name and anticipate meeting someone Hispanic, only to find my pale Irish, Swedish, English, western European face in the room. For that, I give credit to my great-great-great grandfather Magnus. A mercenary with the Swedish army during the Napoleonic wars, the unfortunate man bore a too-common last name. [NOTE: A cousin has informed me that Magnus was too young for the Napoleonic wars, and was a hussar, or mounted soldier in the light cavalry.] And so, being assigned to a garrison where, we presume, he was one of several with the same name, he was given what's called a "garrison name." In short, in the days before service numbers, the Swedish army would simply and legally change soldiers' last names to make them distinct from one another. 

Magnus was given the last name Gomez. Unlike most soldiers who legally switched their garrison names back to their original last names when they left the service, Magnus decided to keep his. However, when he went to register it at the local parish, the Right Reverend Whomever pointed out that no Swede would be able to pronounce it, because that lingual construction doesn't exist in the Swedish language. Thus, we acquired a "T" and became Gometz.

My entire family is a little contrary about quite a few things. I come from a long line of people who simply don't follow the rules. Or, more correctly, they don't see the rules as they're blasting right past them. So I have no doubt that Magnus kept the name because it would annoy someone or otherwise set him apart from the crowd.

Perhaps the Swedes could have used a rudimentary Duolingo so that they would know how to talk about ducks and bears (not a frequent topic that arises in my life) and wine and beer (neither of which I drink, so, again, not exactly useful). I'm finding that the app is helpful at jogging my memory and recovering skills that are about a half-step above "Where's the bathroom?" 

What it's not doing, though, is improving my ability to pull words and sentences out of thin air when I might speak to someone who thinks in Spanish, even if they speak English as well or better than I do. Perhaps that's part of what appeals to me so much about the move I'm considering. It offers a little bit of a fresh start and a re-do at the same time, putting me someplace where more than one set of my skills might be brushed up and put to work for the benefit of myself and others. 

For now, though, my answer to all questions about moving plans and "Do you speak Spanish?" remains, "Un poco, y lentamente." A little ... and slowly. With luck, I'll have better answers, faster, after I visit my potential new home this spring.