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Spencer Rendahl: Speaking Spanish

I started learning French in fifth grade but for most of the rest of middle school our regular teacher was replaced by a sub who could barely say “bojour.” Now that I'm a parent, I hesitate to admit that, for fun, my class made up fake verbs - complete with fake conjugations - to further confuse her.

In high school and a college class, I learned actual French verbs in an array of tenses which I never actually used. So, for me, French was pretty much a bust.

After my daughter was born, I ranked a more useable foreign language high on my list of the things I wanted to provide her. I picked Spanish because she has relatives – as well as millions of fellow Americans - who speak it. And I wanted to start early, since countless studies have shown that babies and young kids practically soak up languages.

But while my city friends can to enroll their kids in Spanish immersion preschools if they want to, here in rural northern New England I’d be lucky to find a ny foreign language story hour at a local library – much less one at a time I could actually get to.

But one day, inspiration struck. As I found myself spending what seemed like hours reading to my daughter every day, I challenged myself to substitute just one Spanish word for an English one on each page. That way I could slowly learn the language mys elf while passing it on. One word could grow into several, and perhaps eventually into full sentences.

And then I uttered the mantra that has led to many of my most spectacular successes and failures in life: “Why not!”

I amassed a small collection of kids bilingual and immersion Spanish books, CDs and DVDs and did my own study on the side. My daughter and I picked up more Spanish every week, and soon she was confusing her non-Spanish speaking father with requests for guisantes for dinner.

I learned, however, that I wasn't always using the King’s Spanish. During a visit with my one of my Spanish-fluent sisters, I decided to show off and asked my daughter “Te quiere un sandwich?”

My sister was not impressed. “You just told her ‘I want you sandwich."

Back to the Berlitz.

After my son arrived, I found that the combination of sleep deprivation, work, and parenting two kids maxed out my limited functioning brain cells. Speaking coherent English was challenging enough; and the Spanish fell by the wayside.

But one night last spring, my then three-and-a-half year old boy handed me a forgotten copy of “El Cuento de Ferdinando” – about a little bull that would rather smell flowers than fight - to read to him before bed. As I stumbled through the pronunciations, h is eyes widened, and then night after night, he asked me to read it to him again. And slowly but surely, the Spanish returned. ¡ Qué maravilloso!

Suzanne Spencer Rendahl is a former journalist whose work has appeared in publications including the Boston Globe. She lives with her husband and two children in Plainfield, NH.
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