“Como estas?” She asked, with an impeccable Spanish accent. “Estoy bien, y tu?” He responded, a bit uncertain, the words somewhat clunky on his tongue. “Muy bien, gracias. Preparaste para hoy?” She asks him if he is prepared for the lesson today. Despite her perfect enunciation of all other letters, she pronounced “p” like “b.”
“Brebaraste para hoy?”
I was immediately reminded of my grandmother, who spoke Spanish like any other Venezuelan, except she always exchanged the letter “p” for “b.” As a Lebanese immigrant to Venezeula, she simply could not accustom herself to pronouncing a letter that does not exist in her mother tongue of Arabic.
I looked up from the Arabic text I was studying and stole a glance at the Spanish-speaking pair. She sits across from him, a textbook between them. She helped him review the verb conjugation forms. He repeated after her. They appeared similar in age to me, the guy perhaps a bit older. They were certainly Jordanian. She explained some of the confusing Spanish grammar to him in the Jordanian Arabic dialect, checking his understanding.
I was curious. It was my first week in Jordan. Could there really be a Spanish lesson happening in front of me, at this coffee shop across from my Arabic language institute? I packed up my things and walked over to their table to introduce myself in Spanish. It turns out that the woman giving the lesson is also an Arabic teacher at my language institute. The man is a doctor hoping to improve his Spanish so he can practice medicine in a Latin American country. While he is just beginning his journey with Spanish, she speaks with the mastery of a well-versed student. Her name is Dana.
I exchanged contact information with Dana, and we begin to meet every week for conversation: half of it in Spanish, the other half in Arabic. She completed her master’s in linguistics in Spain. Her Spanish vocabulary is much more complex than mine. I grew up using words to communicate with family at home. I did not learn the specialized vocabulary of adulthood and academia. I am surprised to find myself stumbling in Spanish about complex issues that I can discuss in Arabic. It is refreshing to practice Spanish with Dana. We develop a friendship.
I have met more people who speak Spanish. I am delighted by their relationships to the language. We often realize the other person speaks Spanish by surprise. I was at a potluck for Eid al-Adha when I met an Italian woman studying Arabic, and it turns out that her father is Argentinian. Gaia speaks Spanish with this lovely Italian accent that causes each word to dance and leap. I met another woman, Annabella, from Finland. She lived in Spain for a few years and speaks with near fluency.
We started meeting as a group, each of us with a slightly imperfect accent shaped by our dominant language. We chat over tea (and sometimes pizza) about anything and everything: our travels, our ambitions, mindless chatter, serious talk. There is something about Spanish, or using our Spanish in a place where it is not common, that makes our conversation more exciting. Thrilling. An indulgence. For an hour a week, I am allowed to put on a different personality. It is that feeling of putting on a daring outfit or a flashy accessory: you’re still the same person underneath it all, but for the time that you wear it, you are an augmented version of yourself.
I am thankful to my mother for the gift of this language. I am thankful for all the times she interrupted my English responses to her Spanish questions, for pushing me to use the language she spoke growing up. It is a gift that constantly replenishes itself, a gift that develops new meaning with each time that I use it. Spanish, the language I use to communicate with my mom’s side of the family. The language I use to occasionally read Marquez and Coelho. The language I use to chat aimlessly with a group of wonderful women whose paths all crossed in Jordan after taking pit stops in Spain, Argentina, Venezuela, Italy, America, and Finland…
A few weeks ago, we attended a Gina Chavez concert organized by the American Embassy. She sang songs in English and Spanish. We sang along to the catchy hooks: “Sube! Ay! Oh!” The Jordanian Orchestra joined in for the second half of the concert, and Gina even sang a few songs she had learned in Arabic. I remembered that languages know no boundaries; that languages sometimes survive and flourish in the places (and people) we least expect them to.
[Originally published on Andrea in Amman blog, November 2016]