My mom stressed the importance of language and world knowledge while my siblings and I were growing up. We were always reading books or learning about other people and places.
I remember playing in the kindergarten classroom at Valley Heights Elementary School during an after-school Spanish learning program when things started to get out of hand.
"Students! Students! Sit in your cheese!"
Mr. Rivera still had a few problems with his English. Or maybe his accent was so thick "chairs" just kind of turned into what sounded like "cheese."
I burst out laughing.
Mr. Rivera had me stand in the corner. I was furious. Couldn't he see the humor in what he said from a 5-year-old's point of view?
Seventeen years later, I found myself the foreigner in a mountain valley close to the capital city of Costa Rica, where I lived with a widow and her son. The woman, doña Silvia, picked me up from the bus station in a taxi. On the drive to her house, she asked me about myself. After six years of studying Spanish, I was able to rattle off where I was from, how many siblings I had, what I studied, what my interests were — the basics — the kind of conversations I had over and over in conversation classes at the University of Kansas.
I arrived in Costa Rica in late January. Over dinner one night, I told my host mother it was snowing and cold in Kansas. She told me about the beautiful weather in Costa Rica, how the Central Valley is 72 and sunny most days.
The next night, doña Silvia asked me if it was still snowing in Kansas. I said yes, and she got concerned.
"How does your dad feed the cows when it snows?" she asked in Spanish. I laughed. Then I thought about all of the conversation classes I had taken, repeating over and over what my favorite food was, what my favorite color was, and expressing the exact location of the rollercoaster in a parque de diversiones.
But how did you say "tractor?" What was the word for "big round haybale?" I could write a 10-page thesis in Spanish about civil revolts in Mexico, but I couldn't tell my host mother how my father fed cows in Kansas.
I mumbled some jibberish about a machine with big tires that can drive over snow that has another machine that can hold two big balls of cow food in the front and in the back. I remember reaching up, balling my fists, and placing one of them in front of me and one of them behind me.
Doña Silvia just blinked and stared, trying to make sense of it. After dinner, I consulted the dictionary and was able to explain the hay bales and the tractor. "Tractor" is even a cognate, which means it's spelled or pronounced similarly in both languages.
The tractor incident would not be my last silly gringa moment in Costa Rica.
My parents planned to come visit me in Costa Rica. For Christmas, I got my mom a small Spanish handbook with helpful phrases and phonetic spellings. My parents came in May for my dad's birthday. By then, I was a pro. I could navigate us around the capital city and countryside, through restaurants, hotels, shops and taxi rides.
The second day in a beach town on the Pacific Coast, my mom got brave while we were shopping for family souvenirs. I gave her pep talks before we went into shops and told her not to speak. I would do the talking. I knew the language and how to haggle prices. The second day, she wanted to at least ask how much something cost. I told her how to say it and she practiced a few times.
The store owner approached her and she said, "¿Cuándo queso?"
I bolted. When I finally found her and claimed her again, I told her she asked the store owner "When cheese?" instead of "¿Cuánto cuesta?" How much is the cost?
Later in their trip, I let her ask a few more questions to the locals. My embarrassment wore off, and I found that the Costa Ricans smiled as she stumbled, appreciated that she tried.
Learning languages is difficult. People know they sound silly and often don't have the confidence to try. Learning, remembering and using a different language becomes especially hard when someone learns a language at an older age. But I've found people usually appreciate it when you try.
I've been stateside for a year now and moved to Garden City two months ago. Not having used Spanish all day everyday, I've lost some of the ground I gained while studying abroad. Of course, I've gotten to use Spanish in Garden City. But those I've talked to will tell you I still have my silly gringa moments.
After years of studying a language, staying up late to write Spanish papers and stammering through conversations, I sympathize with Mr. Rivera. And I would have put that 5-year-old girl in a corner, too.
Staff writer Rachael Gray can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.