I used to teach first-year Spanish for undergrads and their first project was to fill out a student profile. I asked them why they’d signed up for Spanish, and without fail, every one writes some version of how it seems “useful to know a little Spanish”. Some even may say they plan to add a Spanish minor and “be fluent”. I admire their ambition. I don’t have to tell them that after all this time (20+ years), I still question my fluency at times and it’s not that simple, because it doesn’t take them long to figure it out themselves.
A Little Spanish will get you a beer in a bar where they speak only Spanish (and I don’t diminish the importance of that). But if you do it right, a Little Spanish can take you much further, into an understanding of how culture and language are reflections of each other, and of how language isn’t translated word-for-word but meaning-for-meaning, and how maddening and beautiful and fascinating that is. Just a Little Spanish can help you appreciate how difficult it is to learn another language, despite how the LEARN SPANISH IN JUST 30 DAYS! ads might try to seduce us.
But if you gut through first-year Spanish, and the only light at the end of the tunnel is a rubber stamp and some credits on your transcript, or if you expect to learn anything at all with very little effort, your Little Spanish is actually not useful at all, especially in a professional setting, in a court room, in a board room, or in a hospital. You’ll get those credits, for a Little Spanish.
That’s where interpreters come in. If the layperson has a Little Spanish, then interpreters have Big Spanish.
You need Big Spanish to interpret bad news to the patient, to interpret a complicated medical diagnosis, to enter pleas, grant motions, issue judgements, award settlements.
But Big Spanish is not enough to be an interpreter. Interpreters also know what to do when they don’t understand something, when they can’t hear, when everyone is talking at once. They know the difference between the interpreter speaking and the interpreter interpreting, and how to make that difference clear to everyone else.
So what’s the answer? This might sound crazy, but maybe don’t study a language because it’s “useful”. Seriously. Study a language that interests you, that’s spoken in a place that calls to you. Because if all you’re going to do is gut through two years of studies, or whatever is required for your major, you won’t like it, and it will never be useful to you.
I went to Portugal, cringing all the way because I speak only a Little Brazilian Portuguese, and then I was relieved when I discovered there in Porto a very alive mix of Spanish and Portuguese and English that I could navigate, and also cautiously happy that I could throw together a broken mix of three languages and be understood, because language is actually about communication and not perfection, and if you communicate, it is perfect.
And that is the beauty of language, that it’s not a grade on a transcript, or something to be perfected, but that it never ends, that it’s a constant experiment in how we understand it and use it and it’s frustrating that I could never explain this to my students.
A Little Spanish? Let me know how it goes.