I have discovered myself as a kind of laboratory for foreign-language learning.
One of the great gifts of my formation in the Capuchin Order was the chance to learn some Spanish. The brothers gave me two summers in Central America; in Costa Rica we attended a lovely language school and in Honduras we had the chance to live in the novitiate. During most of the time of my six years of Capuchin initial formation, I assisted at Sunday Mass in Spanish. For the last couple of years I served as lector. At the parish where I served as deacon, Spanish was the largest single language group.
I never knew Spanish very well, though. Unfortunately, I didn't use it that much in the parish where I served as a new priest, except occasionally as a retreat confessor. After a few years of relative disuse, it started to fade away somewhat.
However, I remember that when I first came to Italy, the friars who came to get me at the airport both spoke Spanish, and that's how I talked with them on that day. Over my first few days in Italy, as ironic as it sounds, some of my Spanish started to come back, more useful as it was than English for communicating with some of my new brothers.
I remember the occasional frustrated expression from my first Italian teacher when we encountered the sticking power of Spanish in my voice; I was always saying bueno instead of buono, pero instead of però, etc. But after three months of Italian school I knew Italian better than I ever knew Spanish. And then something funny happened; the Spanish disappeared.
I remember one day I was on Metro B on my way home from Italian school here in Rome. At Termini a Mexican-looking tourist got on the train.
¿Padre, hablas Español? he said.
"Yes, a little," I said in Italian.
I tried to speak Spanish. The words weren't there. Luckily for him in the directions he was seeking and me in my silliness, he turned out to be a Texan and spoke English. We laughed, he got off at Colosseo, I continued on my way home to Garbatella.
After this experience I experimented a little. I tried to think of words and expressions in Spanish and I couldn't think of them. Over time it got worse. When I finished my recommended dose of four months of Italian school, I couldn't even remember certain very basic terms. Taking up a technological metaphor, I decided that Italian had overwritten my Spanish, thereby erasing it.
However, a further experience has led me to modify this hypothesis. If I'm with the brothers, trying to speak in Italian, tell stories, be part of the ordinary conversation, that sort of thing, and I have a drink or two while I do it, sometimes Spanish words come back. Without thinking about it, I'll say día instead of giorno, or mismo instead of stesso. It's always little words like that, plain and common.
This has led me to guess that what has happened is that the little bit of Italian I have managed to learn has bullied my even littler bit of Spanish, such that it has retreated into my unconscious. If I loosen up my mind with a cup of wine, the Italian softens it's guard, and a Spanish word makes an escape into my speech now and then.
At least that's my current hypothesis.