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By Anne Silva

There is a quote that says that when you travel, a part of your heart will always be somewhere else. I would say that the same can be true of learning another language; at some point, a part of your brain starts to reside on the Spanish side, visually seeking out Spanish words, catching Spanish in your environment, reaching for the Spanish word when the English word is inadequate or out of reach.

I passed a dry cleaners the other day and swore that it was called “dale,” command form of darle, that ubiquitous Caribbean Spanish word meaning “go ahead” or something to that effect. But nope. It was Dale, as in the man’s name or a little cartoon chipmunk. My brain must have been roaming around in a little Spanish reverie, because a dry cleaners in Ohio is not remotely likely to be called dale. And it made me wonder: at what point is it that your brain suddenly dips into both languages without you realizing it? It must be the language version of those “Magic Eye” pictures where you struggle and struggle to make out that 3-D dolphin, and then BAM! You see it and you can’t unsee it after that. We spend so many years studying and striving for authentic communication skills and then our brain reaches the tipping point and sees The Spanish language everywhere, even where it’s not.

And of course, the same is true about cultures and travel. Once you’ve gotten outside yourself and truly experienced another culture, immersed yourself in a place, made lasting friendships in a far-off land… Well, to some extent, that place becomes part of you. If a news event features that place, you perk up. If you hear passersby mention it, you pay much closer attention to their conversation. If someone says something ignorant about this place that is now dear to you, you don’t hesitate to educate them to the contrary.

What I want to know is, at what point does this appropriation happen? What is the magic formula that sets you at the tipping point where you feel like the language or culture or people are partly yours, and no longer “other?” I mean, I’ve been to Boston a couple times, but it’s definitely not “mine.” I’ve spent far less time in Barcelona, yet it still feels dearer to me than many places that are much closer. What’s the secret ingredient?

What do you think? What makes us–and our students–take ownership of the language and culture? And isn’t that kind of the point to what we do: to take this other way of thinking, speaking, and acting, and make it “not-foreign?”

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