February 3, 2016

Nina B.
Cincinnati, OH

Began studying with Coffee Shop Spanish: January, 2015
Classes per week: 1 to 2

Along the stretching southern coastline of Spain’s “Costa del Sol” lies beautiful Málaga – a serene metropolis on the Mediterranean that embodies summer, sunshine, and everything fascinating about Spain’s ‘tranquila’ culture.

(In case you missed our first blog post in this series, we talked about Mary Ann’s journey with Spanish and how she ultimately wound up in Málaga, Spain.)

Now, imagine if you will, boarding your plane for Málaga on a freezing Tuesday in January. Full of hope and aspirations for your warm, Spanish destination, the gate agent scans your passport and wishes you a safe journey. Once aboard, everything goes quickly downhill. There’s a delay – a long one. Once in the air, there is strong turbulence. Non-stop. At one point, an engine goes out. Children are crying. People are holding hands – praying together. The plane continues to fly. And fly. And fly. For a year. It never stops. No matter what.

The above journey is the closest I’ve come to finding an adequate way to describe Nina’s journey with Spanish. And none of that is in any way to say that she’s struggled with Spanish itself. She’s been an inspiring student and an absolute pleasure to work with. It’s been everything that’s happened to her along the way. But don’t worry! This story has a happy ending. Just like those aboard our proverbial plane ride above, she, too, makes it to her destination.

Nina first learned about Coffee Shop Spanish when she tore a tab off a flyer at Sidewinder Coffee in Northside – a neighborhood just north of downtown Cincinnati. She was preparing to make the move from Northside to Nicaragua just six months later.

“I probably had a working knowledge of 100 Spanish words, but no idea of how to turn them into sentences,” says Nina, a 28-year-old Cincinnati native.

“But I felt that moving abroad would really broaden my understanding of the world. Furthermore, I wanted that country to be one with a different socio-economic status than the comfortable life I knew in the United States. I found an opportunity to spend an entire year doing service work in Matagalpa, Nicaragua.”

She could never have expected the unbelievable journey that lied ahead.

After a diligent seven months of hard, but constantly fun work learning Spanish in the coffee shop, including a two-week immersion trip to Spain with us in the summer of 2015, Nina came home to prepare for her big move to Nicaragua. She packed up her Northside apartment, sold everything that wouldn’t fit into a suitcase, and had a fabulous going away party, which I even had the pleasure of attending. She said goodbye to her family and everything she’d ever known and loved and boarded her plane.

Then began the turbulence.

Her first day, Nina came to find out that the woman running the program was not the “selfless” and “kind” woman she had heard about. Nina was told that she did not speak Spanish, would never be fluent, and was generally ridiculed by her new “boss.”

To make matters worse, Nina then spent the next several days in Nicaragua terribly ill from a corn and cheese tortilla she’d eaten. As the story goes, she first knew something was wrong while at a hole-in-the-wall place with her new friends.

“I had to run across the street to make it just in time…” We’ll let you finish that sentence. She then heard her roommate tell someone, “¡Tenemos una emergencia!” (“We have an emergency!”). “Keeping it classy,” she laughs.

In the days that followed, she had to forego day trips with her new friends and spent significant time in a hostel bed. She then went to a clinic near Grenada where she was told she had appendicitis. After an extended period of panic, just to add to her misfortune, that turned out to be untrue.

In the coming weeks, Nina would grow accustomed to her new environment. She began working with disadvantaged families, while improving her fluency and helping the community of Matagalpa.

Then the engine goes out.

She will never forget that day about a month into her year-long stint in Nicaragua. She received a call learning that her mother, while vacationing with her father in Tennessee, had had a brain aneurism. Nina immediately flew home to be with her family.

A week or so later, Nina found herself living out of a hotel in Tennessee with her dad and brother, driving back and forth to the ICU to care for her mother each day. Then came the Skype call from Nicaragua. It was the director of the program in Matagalpa telling her that she was not welcome back.

Then the crying and hand-holding begins.

Just a few months later, after transferring her back to Cincinnati, Nina’s mother lost her incredibly hard-fought battle. Nina – who had started with so many hopeful aspirations, had invested so much time and effort into learning Spanish, and sold everything she owned to move to Nicaragua to help a struggling community – was left with little to show for it, and significantly less.

Then the pilot’s voice comes over the speaker, “Thank you for flying with us. We hope you’ve enjoyed your journey. The current time in Málaga is…”

As she puts it, Nina “lucked into” a full-time position at Su Casa Hispanic Center in Cincinnati, Ohio coordinating their ESL and GED classes. We’ll call it good karma. She now uses her Spanish every day.

“It’s crazy,” she says. “When I answer the phone now, I say “Hola! Soy Nina de Su Casa. ¿En qué le puedo ayudar?” I would not have even been able to form those sentences a year ago. I see all the same worries, doubts, and fears in my ESL students as I have had.”

And that’s not all that Nina has going for her. Less than a week prior to the writing of this article, Nina was admitted to the Auxiliares de Conversación program in Spain. Once she receives her placement this spring, she will begin working as a teaching assistant in an English classroom in Spain for a year beginning this fall.

What’s been most amazing about Nina’s journey is that you’d be hard pressed to see anything but a smile on her face when she speaks of the past year. To hear her speak of her time in Nicaragua and the events that transpired upon her return, you’d think it had gone just as smoothly as she’d planned it. Nina’s journey has been an inspiring one and she has such a positive story to tell the world.

“Quitting was never an option with Nicaragua, Su Casa, or now Spain,” she says.

Ahead, you can read our full interview with Nina, including some of her tips and tricks for becoming fluent in less than a year.

What is your motivation to learn Spanish? Has Nina’s story inspired you? Please comment below or contact us to let us know!

What inspired you to begin studying Spanish?
“I always wanted to not just visit a foreign country, but also live in one. I felt that moving overseas would really broaden my understanding of the world. Furthermore, I wanted to that country to be one with a different socio-economic status than the comfortable life I knew in the United States. I feel like those of us in privilege have ill-informed ideas on how people in poverty actually live. So I wanted to experience that for myself.

So I initially found an opportunity to spend an entire year doing service work in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. I knew that if I wanted to immerse myself in the culture, I would need the language. While I had studied Spanish in high school, it had been about 9-10 years since I really did anything with the language. One day I was at Sidewinder’s in Northside and saw Daniel’s ad. I thought, “Oh yeah, Spanish! I need to learn that! I guess I should e-mail that guy!”

How has studying Spanish changed your life?
“You know, life is funny, isn’t it? I actually only spent a month in Nicaragua. I returned to the US because of some health issues with my family. First of all, I learned so much just in that month. I learned about how different cultures interact with one another, how they see things in a societal way and so many other things. I really felt what being the foreigner feels like. People had preconceived notions about me, the “extranjera.” It has really shaped how I interact with anyone from another culture. I also learned of the beauty of Nicaragua. It’s not a country and a people group that we need to pity. And everyone needs to visit it ASAP.

Upon returning to the US, I lucked into finding a full-time position at Su Casa Hispanic Center coordinating their ESL and GED classes. Bilingual is a requirement of all staff members at Su Casa. I literally would not have been hired had I applied only a year or two ago. It’s crazy … when I answer the phone, I say “Hola! Soy Nina de Su Casa. ¿En qué le puedo ayudar?” I would not have even been able to form those sentences a year ago. I see all the same worries, doubts and fears in my ESL students as I have/had. They are often afraid to speak because they don’t want to get laughed at. They find other people from their culture in Cincinnati because it’s comfortable. These are all things I did/felt in Nicaragua.

So learning Spanish has really helped me connect with people from other cultures more. It allows me to be a welcoming and helpful person to our immigrant community in Cincinnati.”

Have you learned anything new about yourself because of learning Spanish?
“Learning Spanish has brought out my creative side to the max. I am still always learning new phrases and words. So when speaking, I’m always confident I can say what I mean. I just may have to use a different phrase. I lost the expectation of translating myself word for word long ago. It’s a different language, so that will simply never be a reality. So I’ve learned that I just go with it when speaking.”

Have you learned anything new about the world because of learning Spanish?
“So many things. At Su Casa, Spanish has allowed me to learn more about immigration in the United States. I’ve been able to learn about the injustices and what problems my clients face.

I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Spain and Nicaragua. I’ve learned so much about both of these cultures. While they are vastly different, I love both of these cultures immensely.”

Explain a time you thought you couldn’t get through some tough aspect of learning Spanish. How did you get through it?
“While Nicaragua was beautiful, it had its challenges. There were so many times there where someone said something and I understood nothing. Some were super nice and some were not. Those who had never learned a foreign language simply could not understand the need to slow down for me. There were many days where I wondered if it would ever get any better. Furthermore, my supervisor, who also had Spanish as her second language, straight-up told me that I don’t speak Spanish one day about a month in. It knocked down my confidence for perhaps a few days and that was it. One, I knew that my Spanish was not perfect. And two, I just had to keep going. It’s crazy because bilingual is literally on my business card now. It still is not perfect, but I just let go of any stress or pressure. Learning a language is fun and I treat it as such. I try to find the most ridiculous telenovelas, Spanish talk shows and YouTube videos. I listen to a lot of Reggaeton. I also talk to myself in Spanish in the car.”

How do you use your Spanish on a regular basis?
“I speak Spanish at Su Casa every day. I answer the phone in Spanish. English-speakers have to ask if I speak Spanish when they call, which is funny. I register clients for ESL classes in Spanish. I have conversations with them in Spanish, answer their questions in Spanish, etc.

Also, my best friend is a middle school Spanish teacher. She and I often text in Spanish.”

If you had only one minute to convince someone that learning Spanish might be the single-most important thing they ever do for themself, what would you say?
“It opens so many doors. You can travel to over 15 new countries. You can connect with people who grew up way differently than you and thus broaden your horizon.”

What role has Coffee Shop Spanish played in helping you get to where you are with your Spanish?
“Coffee Shop Spanish gave me an excellent foundation. Except for the future tense (hahaha- learned that one in Nicaragua), I’ve learned and practiced all the verb tenses that I need. Coffee Shop Spanish has also gotten me more comfortable in speaking without fear. I just go for it.”

Where did your Spanish start when you began learning with Coffee Shop Spanish? What can you do now that you couldn’t do then?
“I probably had a working knowledge of 100 words, but no idea of how to turn them into sentences. Now I can have a conversation and understand people speaking to me. I can follow along, more or less, when watching TV or listening to the radio.”

What is the secret to your success in learning Spanish?
“I just have fun with it. I find songs that I like, and listen to them over and over on YouTube. I read books and magazines in Spanish. And I find the most ridiculous-looking television shows in Spanish. I found this gem of a TV show on Hulu called La Familia P. Luche. My boss at Su Casa told me that ‘peluche’ means stuffed-animal. These people wear furry clothing and it looks like a cartoon. The theme song is very 1990’s. So even if I can’t understand all the words, I can laugh at how ridiculous it is.”

Unrelated to Spanish, what defines you as a person? What do you do daily? What is your passion?
“I love to write. I have my own blog entitled A World of Dresses (http://aworldofdresses.com) where I write about dresses and women. I’m hoping to travel the world in all my dresses and write about it through the blog. I hope that dresses can connect women. And dresses are often a part of so many cultures.

I’m also passionate about social justice. This is part of what led me to my desire to live in Nicaragua and my job at Su Casa. I’m a big advocate for immigration reform, amongst many other social justice issues (human trafficking, environmental issues, etc).”