Many moons ago, I was a Pre-Med student at Washington University in St. Louis sitting wide-eyed in an organic chemistry class trying to process a list of rules when the professor broke out into a list of exceptions to the rules. As a bit of drool dribbled from my open mouth (think Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”), I decided it was time to declare my Spanish Language and Literature major.
I had always loved studying languages but, after three years in a High School Pre-Medical Program and another two years in college, this declaration came as a bit of a shock to some. A Spanish major??? What are you gonna do with that? Are you going to be a teacher? Will you work for the United Nations? (I was also taking Italian and Russian at the time.)
Truth was, I didn’t know what I was going to do with a Spanish major, and I didn’t much care. I was just enjoying my liberal arts education (okay, and the frat parties, too).
Graduation came and so did a job, with the Division of Special Education at the Board of Ed, as an interpreter for suspension hearings. In other words, a kid brings a machete to school, gets in trouble, heads down to the suspension hearings office with his parents (who don’t speak English), and there in that room with a sometimes still violent child, a lawyer, and a tape recorder, I would translate the legal proceedings for the parents.
Take a guess–how many of those hearings do you think I interpreted? One, five, twenty? [Sound game show buzzer here.] Try zero.
I bet you think it was the thought of that machete that scared me, right? Wrong again. It was the tape recorder. Some of the parents were not educated people and their Spanish in no way resembled the language I had learned in school. Some of them spoke at lightning speed and chopped off the ends of their words. (I imagine Midwesterners have the same complaint when they speak to me, a New Yorker.) Let me just say there were many repeats on the nightmare channel that season and they all involved a village idiot resembling moi not being able to communicate with parents as the tape rolled in the background.
A short time later I got the job that would eventually lead to my current career as a technical writer, and the Spanish major was no longer an issue. However, I often take the opportunity to point out to my parents just how valuable my knowledge of the Spanish language has been. Like, for example, when my husband needs to know whether the arroz con pollo is on the bone or not. “Your tuition dollars at work,” I tell my parents. (I am the cause of a lot of eye rolling in my family.)
Despite the suspension hearings thing, I truly do love learning languages and I enjoy speaking with people whenever I get the chance to practice. I once got to say “In nazdik-tarin raheh” to a cab driver in New York (translation: “This is the shortest way,” in Farsi), which was a lot more rewarding than just randomly blurting out “I want to buy apples and cheese.” Of course, once I pointed in the direction I wanted to go, the conversation was mostly over.
Then, there was the time I was traveling in Italy with my cousin on a day when there was the rumor of a train strike. My cousin went to the ticket window to inquire about the strike. When I saw the expression on the ticket agent’s face, I stepped in a bit closer and heard my cousin ask in Italian if there was going to be a “syrup” today. The difference between sciopero and sciroppo. College Italian saved the day.
While these moments were fun, I have to admit I sometimes yearned for a greater use of my college major. That moment finally came last night when my brother, a real estate agent in Manhattan, needed a translator to assist him with a potential client calling from Argentina. With an hour to spare, I looked up any words I didn’t know in the listing and converted square footage to the metric system. When the call came, we managed to communicate.
Tuition dollars at work. 😉