The Uncommon App: Finding Joy

Graphic by Isabella Xie

By Cassandra Luca

Newton South High School Class of 2017

Somos is a Spanish verb, we are, that is complete without the pronoun we. In English, a verb without its pronoun sounds ridiculously incomplete. I didn’t know it at the time, but saying nosotros each time made me an amateur. To make matters worse, I knew what somos meant in theory, but I had no idea what I was actually saying. I could’ve said somos to any native speaker, and while those syllables would mean something to them, I’d only hear empty noises. It’s fine, I thought. Spanish would be just another class I had to get through.

In seventh grade, I learned position words: encima is on top, delante is in front, and detrás is behind. For each homework assignment, I used those words to describe pictures of classroom objects. La silla está delante del pupitre, I wrote. The chair is in front of the desk. Only now could I see the words play out in front of me: the backpack is on the floor! The pencil is under the folder! Even if the vocabulary wasn’t riveting, at least I knew what the words meant.

The fog clouding my mind didn’t begin to fade until the day I learned the word for ruler— la regla. Sitting in class, I remembered Mom admonishing me for my shaky lines and poorly drawn angles, sending me to get a ruler— o riglă. I didn’t need to relearn “ruler” in Spanish, because I’d known the word since childhood. Phrases in Romanian and Spanish work the same way: me di cuenta and mi-am dat seama are nearly identical, while the English translation is I realized. I’d been thinking in English instead of letting my first language fill in the gaps. Maybe learning a third language wasn’t as hopeless as I thought.

Slowly, the words connected themselves: cocina, kitchen, comes from the verb cocinar, to cook. Some words sound funny: bucear, to snorkel, is buceé in the past tense first person singular; I giggled the first time my teacher said it aloud. Language is an art form, a network of word families that can create compound nouns like paraguas: para and agua meet to become an umbrella. Other nouns change their meaning based off the article: el papa is the pope, not to be confused with la papa, the potato. (I’ve mixed up the two many times, a mistake that was always met with bemused expressions.) I crave the light bulb moment that comes when my brain connects the dots.

Writing in my notebook in class, my jumbled thoughts began to make sense. My voice was lighter, freer. Spanish isn’t clinical. It’s musical: the notes blend to reveal feelings that are too vulnerable to utter in English. Spanish is emotional; it won’t let me hide my thoughts.

Through happy accident, I found “Punto y Coma,” a Spanish magazine for those of us who hadn’t yet made the jump to Don Quixote. When my first copy arrived, I immediately flipped to the cover story on my favorite Spanish landmark, la Sagrada Família, and froze in the middle of the page. Printed in the third paragraph was pueda instead of puede; one letter had distorted the meaning of she can. I’d always thought that verb endings were constant. Had my efforts to understand Spanish been for nothing?

Perplexed, I opened my textbook and flipped through the pages until a similar “error” caught my eye. The subjunctive mood, the book said, is used to express doubts, emotions, and hypothetical situations. In English we’d say, I want you to go to the store; Spanish, like all Romance languages, conjugates verbs to replace “you to go”. Though the construction was baffling at first, it eventually slipped into my speech. Its use depends largely on context, and it soon became another puzzle my brain loved to unravel. Other non-native speakers hated the ambiguity; still, I liked that a single verb could alter my intentions. I tried to explain this to anyone who would listen, but they only rolled their eyes.

The subjunctive taught me to be coherent in a language that isn’t mine. An English thought process can’t be translated into a Spanish one. Both ways of thinking arrive at the same place, yet the roads traveled diverge. Spanish grammatical structures grant me access to a people’s opinions and culture, to the way they think. People experience the same thoughts, feelings, and desires that I do, but go about their lives in a different language.

A few weeks ago, I saw Señora Planine, my Spanish teacher from last year, for the first time since June. She’d been sick with vertigo and now walks with a cane. ¿Está bien? Espero que usted se mejore pronto. Are you okay? I hope you feel better soon. This was the first time I spoke Spanish in months, but it rolled off my tongue and bridged the divide between us: we are two different people with two distinct perceptions of life. Yet in that moment, we understood each other.

Wherever life will take me, I can always say that I’m nearly fluent in Spanish. It’s a sanctuary; no matter how much time passes since the last time I’ve spoken, I’ll never forget it. It’s a complex puzzle I can solve on my own, a point of clarity in an uncertain world. Languages —hearing, speaking, listening to them— are the closest expression of my thoughts that I have. A thrill runs through me when I talk to someone and feel the barrier between us shatter. Languages bring me pure joy. When I speak, I find my own voice.