There are a lot of qualities one needs to be a successful social
jerk worker. Patience, understanding of child development, knowledge of family systems, creativity, proximity to a punching bag…
But there’s one that will serve you better than almost anything else–a working knowledge of Spanish.
Yesterday I found myself doing an unannounced home visit. For those of you fortunate enough to work in a field where you don’t have to surprise people, and possibly their angry dogs, in their own homes, let me explain–this is what we have to do when people aren’t coming in for services, answering their phones, what have you. Got to make those numbers!
I found myself face to face with a very sweet Puerto Rican grandma (abuelita, if you will.) I think she was very sweet, anyway. She didn’t speak a word of English, aside from “thank you.”
We made it through the visit all right. She gave me an update on her grandson, let me know where her daughter was, and had me visit with her granddaughter. Also, she may or may not have given me a cookie. (Hint: it was delicious.)
My Spanish is actually pretty good. But I’m not a native speaker. Even if I pack up and move to Ecuador for a couple of years, I’m not going to sound like one. There’s always that edge that native speakers have–the colloqualisms, regional terminology, subtle pronunciation differences–you pick them up the more you use them, but it’s just not the same as growing up with it.
It’s what makes me, and a lot of other people, self conscious. What if I pronounce something wrong? What if I use the wrong verb? Well, you
probably will. But when you’re dealing with someone who speaks much less English than you do Spanish, they’ll be grateful for the effort. I always remind myself that I would never make fun of an English language learner, so why do I worry that someone would do that to me?
Making do with the language skills you have is a necessity. It’s part of the job. But sometimes, hilarity ensues.
My co-workers and I (all of whom spoke Spanish as a second language) have in the past:
- Asked a 4 year old, “Te quiero?” (I love you?) instead of, “Tu quieres?” (You want?) when serving snack.
- Inquired “Cuantos anos tienes?” (How many anuses do you have?) rather than “Cuantos años tienes?” (How old are you?)
- Informed the parents that it was “Sock day!” (media día) rather than a “half day” (medio día.)
- Tried to act like we required the mother’s date of birth, after messing up pronouns when asking about the son.
- Announced that there were many “bichos” in the room we were meeting in. (This can mean that there are lots of flies. In Puerto Rican slang, it means that there are lots of penises. Guess where everyone in that room was from?)
- Thought that it was acceptable for kids to call one another “pato” since it just means “duck.” (It actually also means something else.)
So yes, I have at times sounded like an idiot. I’ll give you all a moment to recover from that profound shock. But I’ve also learned a lot, and been able to use my imperfect language skills to accomplish things I didn’t think I could.
It’s a good thing humility and flexibility are also invaluable in social work.