Going on slightly more than 20 years now I have always been involved in some formal or informal language learning. If I wasn’t taking actual language classes, I was working with a private tutor. All of these classes were in addition to formal and informal interpreting classes, which by the way are not exactly cheap. And, just so you know, schools, tutors, and teachers will never turn you down and say you don’t need their help, regardless of your abilities. And why would they?
About a month ago I stopped all the classes, and I admit that I am somewhat lost. Although I am confident in my language abilities, there has always been that thought of I may be missing something. I am sure you know what I am talking about, the big ‘what if’ questions. What if I don’t have the exact word ready? What if my pronunciation isn’t precise? What if I royally screw up? Well, of course, it wouldn’t be the end of the world, but for me, well, it sort of is. My profession, after all, is the ability to transfer the meaning from one language to another, and I like to do this without sounding like a fool.
I have no fear at all of using my second language, Spanish, and the truth is I prefer to use Spanish over English. I read that your personality changes according to which language you use, and I believe this to be true. I am more expressive with Spanish. I smile more when speaking in Spanish, and I feel happier. I am also a huge fan of tacos al carbón and horchata.
I have been fortunate to have the support of a wife and family who have understood my need to spend time in Mexico, Costa Rica and Guatemala over the years as I have honed my Spanish speaking skills. They have supported and respected the hundreds of hours I have spent alone in my home-office studying, memorizing and practicing, and for this I am grateful. Now if they would stop speaking to me in English, that would be great. I’m kidding!
For those other second language learners out there, here is a question for you. Have you ever not been learning? I have been doing this for so long that I don’t remember a time that I haven’t been in learning mode. Even during vacations, I would always be sure to pack my study materials. I am sure I was considered the life of the party on some of my wife and I cruise adventures. Not! There we were on vacation to enjoy the sights and sounds of the Caribbean, and there I was mentally stuck on improving my language skills flipping flashcards to memorize some more terms.
My mother, in her motherly way, asked me one time, David, do you know what a professional student is? She then talked about other relatives who were this way. I, naturally, did not apply the question to myself. I wasn’t a professional student. Nope, not me. I am a professional interpreter, and as such I must always be on top of my language game. I mentally justified the need to study continually. The truth? Yes, I was a professional student. I probably still am.
Last month I stopped the lessons, and I think my body and mind are going through a rebellion. I am fidgety, restless so to speak. I can’t stop myself from eating. My nightly ritual is chips and salsa (As a side note, I like to warm the chips first in the microwave. They are delicious this way). I am supposed to be enjoying a television show with my wife, but instead, I am reading the news on my phone, in Spanish of course. Why? I need my study fix.
Now I want to be clear that I believe learning is something that is continuous and needed. How else does one improve? Like anything else, though, it can be taken to an extreme. Could I have gone to the extreme? Surely not.
Whenever I hear a Spanish speaker talking in English, I listen for an accent. Are they using the correct English syntax? What about the grammar? Am I judging them? No, not at all. Please don’t even think that. I am listening for clues to help me with my Spanish skills. During my pronunciation frenzy obsession time, I would also watch the movement of the lips and tongue so that alone I could mimic the actions in front of a mirror. How obsessed with a language is that?
By now you may be thinking, this guy has flipped his Spanish speaking lid. Wow! I hope not, especially since I have put so much time, money and effort into this Spanish learning endeavor. I will admit, in hindsight, that I may have at times gone a little overboard with my Spanish speaking obsession, but never entirely out of control. Okay, maybe just a few times I went beyond the norm, like when I was walking the mall with my tutor, and we stopped so he could place his hands on my face to help me pronounce the Spanish letter ‘O’ correctly. Looking back, I am sure that was a sight to see, two guys face to face with one holding the face of the other in his hands, and both going ‘O,’ ‘O’ ‘O.’
And, because you are probably curious, the answer is yes, I do pronounce the letter ‘O’ correctly. I wonder if others were, and possible are now, as obsessed with their second language? Do Spanish speakers continuously think about their English? Do they worry they may mispronounce a single letter? Do they obsess with grammar and syntax? I don’t know. My guess is some do, and some don’t.
What I know with total confidence is that I have made some wonderful life-long friends along this journey. I am a member of many forums related to language learning, interpreting, and translation and guess what? There is just as much debate among Spanish speakers as to what is and is not the correct way to say something –in Spanish, so it isn’t just because I am a second language learner that I question myself. Spanish speakers do it all the time. What a relief, right?
In closing, not continuously studying is still a new adventure for me. It is exciting, yet scary. I am happy to say that I will be traveling to Mexico within the next month or so and my goal is not to take any study materials, which will be the first time in 20 years that I haven’t made a trip for the specific purpose of improving my Spanish speaking skills. This time, I plan to relax, enjoy and maybe even indulge in a little Tequila.
David Martin Tucker, Certified Spanish Medical Interpreter, CHI™, or “Spanish David” as he is known, is a certified medical interpreter whose passion for Latin American culture and language is second only to his desire to become a voice for his Spanish speaking clients. Conveying more than words, David’s continuous thirst for knowledge thrusts him into the culture of his clients.
David is an honor’s graduate from the Southern California School of Interpreting’s Medical Interpreter Program, and holds bachelor degrees in both Modern Languages (Spanish) and Business from Metropolitan State College of Denver and the University of Southern Indiana respectively.
A founding member of the El Puente Bilingual Toastmasters in Denver, David is also a contributor to the International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA), the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC), and is a member of the Colorado Rocky Mountain Health Care Patient Advisory Board.