PHOENIX -- Flight attendant Ashton Larson has been a flight attendant with US Airways for 14 years. A year ago, he took the exam to qualify as a Spanish-language flight attendant. He passed the exam, and that's when things started to change.
“What they're surprised about is that a lot of people speak a little bit of Spanish,” Larson said. “But they don't expect it to come out of a tall Swedish boy.”
Larson has learned what many adults are discovering: In the U.S., particularly in the West, it pays to speak Spanish. That’s because, if you're a flight attendant, seniority counts.
“In Phoenix, I would be right in the middle of our base of flight attendants,” Larson said. “But, when I go onto the Spanish base, then I'm way up there at the top. So I can get weekends off, and holidays, and work the trips that I desire.”
Larson's fellow attendant on this flight is also a non-native Spanish speaker. Lisa Nelson studied Spanish in school, but that wasn't enough to make her fluent.
“I did not have the conversational background, having most of my experience in literature. I can write a ten-page paper in Spanish, I can read a novel in Spanish,” Nelson said. Carrying on a conversation in Spanish was another story.
Like her colleague Larson, Nelson's key to fluency was Spanish immersion. However, her path to passing the airline's Spanish exam was different. She fell in love with a Mexican, and her Spanish soon became conversational.
The advantages of learning from a lover were clear to Nelson.
“You really train your ear when you're in love with the person. You really train your ear to everything they say. You don't want to miss one syllable,” she said. “Who else is going to have that kind of patience with you, other than someone who loves you?”
While some are learning Spanish for professional advancement, others pursue Spanish for personal development. In 2002, Kirk Millson was working for the Salt Lake Tribune as an editorial writer. The paper underwent a major management change. The situation deteriorated.
“The new guys came in and fired everybody who thought I was a genius,” Millson said. Then management “promoted everybody who thought I was stupid.”
Despondent, and ready for a break, Millson decided to check off something on his bucket list – immerse himself in Spanish and finally learn the language. Meanwhile, his son, Peter, was floundering in the eighth grade. Dad pitched Guatemala as a rehabilitation plan for both of them.
Millson recalls that he used his son for cover. “I figured, going home and telling my wife, 'Hi honey, I lost my job, I want to take all of our savings, and drive to the end of the road’,” wasn't going to fly.
The strategy of pitching their trip as a reinvention plan worked. Millson packed up a 1974 Dodge Dart with his son. They left Salt Lake City and headed for the border.
Millson remembers that the trip was full of challenges. “It was really kind of scary, at first,” he said.
They traveled through Mexico, arriving in Quetzaltenango, the second-largest city in Guatemala. They moved into an apartment and enrolled in a Spanish language school. It was just what Millson’s son needed.
“It really kinda jazzed him up,” said the elder Millson. “He came out of there ready to go home and do some homework. And I think he really kind of liked being a good student.”
So how successful was that rehabilitation strategy? No longer an active journalist, Millson now works in the housing industry. He reads books in Spanish almost exclusively. And his son? Today Peter is a senior in bioengineering at the University of Utah.
Why learn Spanish? Beyond the job, beyond personal improvement, some feel a calling to serve.
When Kearney, Ariz. residents Carol and Sam Hosler enter Rosalia's Mexican Restaurant, they look like any other newly retired couple.
But this couple is different. They are both Episcopal Priests. Arrested in the 1960s for saying mass in the Pentagon, the Hoslers never stopped pushing their limits – even as they approached retirement. So, about eight years ago, they shipped off to Antigua, Guatemala to learn Spanish.
Carol Hosler explains their goal was to enrich the worship experience of their Latino parishioners back home.
“I still think that somewhere, deep in our soul, to be able to worship in our mother tongue, connects us at a depth that doesn't quite get touched by a second or a third language,” she said.
Sam Hosler said they learned more than Spanish in Guatemala. “Our teachers would take us to the hospitals and help us understand what was happening,” he said. “That was the real learning for us.”
Still active in their local church, one of them will occasionally take to the pulpit. Then Carol Hosler, wearing her white liturgical garb, her hands outstretched, leads her congregation in song.
Sam Hosler recalls that, in Guatemala, there was one song that was sung everywhere – every service they attended.
“And so it was delightful for us when we discovered that that's the song that this congregation likes to sing most in Spanish. It's the one we learned in Guatemala,” Carol Hosler said.