Of course you must constantly learn more words, more names of things. But don’t wait to use your Spanish until your vocabulary is good. I volunteered at the county hospital when I barely knew any Spanish. I would show people to where they needed to go, smiling and saying cheerfully, “Esta bién.” One memorable day, when I was asked to stay with a woman in labor, I alternated between “Esta bin” and “¡Empuje!”
Our daughter volunteered at a children’s shelter and relied most of the time on the question,
“¿Más leche?” After the first day, you’ll know what you need to learn for that situation.
You will be genuinely useful with whatever Spanish you have as a volunteer in a school,
hospital, civic program, church, nursing home, rehab center. You will be valuable to the
institution as well as to the clients. Whatever your Spanish is, it’s better than their English.
You don’t have to be very accomplished, just willing to try to communicate. Your good will
toward Spanish speakers will be a great help. If you are a kind person, truly interested in others, you will understand that many Spanish-speakers in this country are humble people, doing menial jobs. You show respect for them by speaking their language.
Here’s my friend Larry again. A retired orthodontist, he bought a 25-cent Border Patrol
handbook thirty years ago when he realized he had many Spanish-speaking patients. Now he volunteers on Mondays at a dental clinic where no one else speaks English.