One of the only questions I was asked before I was hired as a line cook was if I was familiar with kitchen terms like behind and hot. Of course I was. What I didn’t expect was that the kitchen culture and language that I was jumping into was going to be in spanish as much as english.
All of my coworkers can understand and speak at least some english, most of them speak spanish as a first language or are native speakers who were raised to speak both languages.
My family did speak some spanish, but it was mostly when they didn't want me to know what was going on. Spanish was infamously my most hated subject in school. It was my only B when I had straight A’s. I could memorize a vocabulary list or conjugation pattern for a test, but by the next week I would completely forget it. And after the summer, it always felt like starting from scratch.
I can remember spanish lessons beginning when I was in the second grade and continuing through my sophomore year in high school. But after eight years of lessons, I felt like I hadn’t learned anything.
Recently, I’ve been surprised by how much I learned and remember from all the years of classes. In the kitchen, for the first time in my life I’ve been submerged into an environment in which I speak and hear spanish every day.
The best thing about picking up spanish in the kitchen is that we use most of the same words all of the time and I’m able to add to my vocabulary slowly with lots of repetition. Every couple of days I ask for a new word or phrase and am able to build up my understanding and capability in a way that feels very natural.
I was initially very shy about using the little bit of the language that I had a solid grasp on. I would say a phrase or two and suddenly someone would think I spoke fluently and would fire a response back to me while I stared blankly with no clue what they had just said.
But most of my coworkers were surprised that I could speak with a proper accent and are very encouraging. Each time I can use a new word in context or convey an original thought I am congratulated and often commended.
I realized that the way I felt speaking spanish was extremely similar to the way they felt speaking english. Shy, nervous, a little embarrassed. But they more I try to learn their language, the more they teach me and try to speak english too.
Learning a new language and having the courage to develop your skills in front of other people is a challenge. I try my best to be as supportive and encouraging to my coworkers who are shy about their english as they are to me with my spanish. This experience has reminded me that meeting people where they are is both a bold and beautiful thing.