A Second Language is a Superpower

Wednesday, January 11, 2023
Knowing another language is a superpower. I'm not sure I understood this in middle school or high school when I sat in class with my peers trying to conjugate Spanish verbs and practice my Spanish vocabulary. But now that I'm a little older (and wiser) I think I understand the value of knowing a second language. I tell you, it's my hidden superpower!

Photo via Unsplash, F. Gielda

This post is part of an editorial section called Beyond Momma, where I share personal thoughts and stories. You can check out more of Beyond Momma here.

Maybe you're like me, raised speaking one language, but you took a second language in school. I attended Spanish class in middle school, Advanced Placement Spanish in high school and Advanced Spanish in college. I was also required to teach Basic Spanish to my students when I became an educator (but most of it was done through a VHS tape - remember those??). Truth be told, I think I learned the most from my Spanish-speaking college classmates in Jersey City, New Jersey (shout-out to St Peters!). You'd think all of those Spanish lessons would have stuck with me, but once I graduated college and moved on, speaking Spanish was just a memory.

Fast forward many years later, far from my high school days, far from college and my Spanish-speaking friends. I'm a mom and wife now, living in a somewhat rural area that is nothing like Jersey City or St. Peter's. One night my husband and I were watching a Clint Eastwood movie called Cry Macho. Have you seen it? Not one of Clint's best films, but it was still enjoyable, and the interesting part was that it had English subtitles for the characters who spoke Spanish. The night I watched Cry Macho with my husband I wasn't paying much attention to it - I was scrolling on my phone while the movie was playing. When the characters spoke Spanish, I kept translating what they were saying without even looking at the subtitles. Finally my husband exclaimed in surprise, 'How are you doing that?' And like a lightning bolt striking me, I gasped: I can still speak Spanish! 

Those years studying Spanish through middle school, high school and college somehow paid off...at least a little bit. The next day I told my son this story and he said I should try practicing Spanish again to see if I could learn more. He suggested I try Duolingo, a learning app he used in school. So that's exactly what I did. I practiced Spanish with Duolingo every single day for over a year (until Duolingo changed their entire site and I hated it so much that I stopped practicing. Sorry, Duolingo, but it's true, and I know I'm not the only user who hated the change). 

Anyway, here's where the superpower part comes in. Since practicing my Spanish again, I can't tell you how empowering it feels. To walk into a room and know what other people are saying when they're not speaking your language is an incredible feeling. To break through an invisible barrier and be able to communicate with someone is almost magical. Now when I'm in a store, I can sometimes grasp what people are saying when they're speaking Spanish near me. "I can't open the door! It's too heavy!" I heard a little girl say to her mother in a public bathroom. "Just keep going straight and then turn right," a man said to his friend in the local Walmart. Maybe they're meaningless sentences, but it doesn't matter. I understood them without even thinking about it. And sometimes I hear people translate incorrectly. Once while watching the news, a reporter interviewed a woman in Spanish about crime in her neighborhood. "Maria Martinez is frightened to live here," the reporter translated to the audience. I raised an eyebrow knowing what Maria really said was "I'm worried about living here." Might not seem like much, but there is a difference between being worried and being frightened. I felt proud of myself for noticing. 

I have a friend who's a little bit younger than me and she was not born in this country. She has a beautiful accent from the country she was born in. She's lived in several different places around the world and she certainly knows more languages than I do. Sometimes she gets stuck on English words and she'll ask me how to say certain things or she'll ask me the difference between certain words. She told me that sometimes it makes her feel stupid when she can't pronounce certain English words or if she doesn't know their meaning. I was shocked when she told me that she felt stupid for not knowing the proper pronunciation of an English word. She certainly knows more than I do- she can speak three languages! But now that I've been practicing my Spanish a little more, I know how she feels.

photo from Senorita Mariposa by Ben Gundersheimer, illustrated by Marcos Almada Rivero c 2019

Sometimes the vocabulary fails me. For example, if I wanted to say (in Spanish) that my shoe is untied, I might not know the Spanish word for 'untied.' Of course I could Google it, but if I'm in a conversation with someone, the best I can do is try to substitute with a word I do know. That means I'd wind up saying something like 'my shoe is broken' or 'my shoe is wrong.' Native Spanish speakers might laugh at me or get a chuckle at my wording, and it certainly might make me sound less intelligent. But that wouldn't be true now, would it?

Learning a second language (it doesn't have to be Spanish- it can be any language) made me realize how important it is for us to have empathy for those learning our language. Just because someone has an accent that you don't recognize, just because English isn't their first language, just because they don't speak English as well as you do- it doesn't mean they're unintelligent. Be patient with anyone who doesn't speak your native language. Help them. Listen and be supportive. They're learning a superpower, after all. Soon they'll be able to communicate with more human beings on this planet, and that is an incredible thing.

And as a final note, if you're one of those people who think, 'why should I learn another language? We live in America, speak English!' then you're missing the entire point (and a potential superpower!). Language is about education and communication. People in America speak different languages - that's a fact. You're not going to stop it, you're not going to change it. Instead of fighting it, why not put yourself at an advantage and learn a second language, too? 

Post playlist: Cancion Bonita by Carlos Vives & Ricky Martin, Despues de la Playa by Bad Bunny

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