When the gringo had to learn Spanish

Giving up girls for two years I could do. Missing out on on a few seasons of Cheers or Family Ties I could handle,

Learning Spanish in order to be a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? That was asking the impossible.

I flunked Spanish in high school. I could barely string coherent phrases in English on most days.

Yet a church leader I believed to be a prophet of God sent me a letter in a large, white envelope from Salt Lake City. It said you will serve for two years in Puerto Rico and learn gospel lessons in Spanish.

Within eight weeks. No Rosetta Stone to bail me out.

Two months later, I stood in the San Juan airport in Puerto Rico, soaked in sweat from the humidity, noticing the stares and not understanding a single word.

Charlie Brown’s teacher made more sense than what I was hearing.

I tried every day, oh how I tried. If we were teaching in somebody’s home, I would speak for two minutes, feeling very proud of myself.

At the end of my short monologue in Spanish, perplexed family members smiled and glanced at my companion, the other missionary who had been on the island much longer than me. He patiently repeated everything I just said, only this time in Spanish that they could understand.

Weeks turned to months and the words came, slowly at first. I could say simple phrases.

If people spoke slowly enough, I could understand.

It was a few months before I went home when it hit me. No longer am I thinking of the words in English, coming up with the Spanish equivalent in my head and then speaking the phrase out loud.

Suddenly I was automatically thinking in Spanish in my head. I could speak much more clearly and people could understand me. Suddenly I had a different understanding of the gift of tongues.

Now I’m in another hard spot, learning new writing skills that seem almost as foreign as learning Spanish. It’s hard and I struggle each day, even as I work with very good, patient people.

Whenever I think it will never come, that I might not ever get this, I remember how I was able to learn Spanish, little by little, until one day when the fog lifted and I could speak.

It will happen here as well. So on that day, you’ll have to excuse me if I look up and say, “es muy bien.”