We take language for granted every day. You wake up, and you don’t think about saying “good morning” to the people you live with. Some of us don’t even do it. You get in your car, or on the train, or bus. You stop at a Starbucks to get your morning coffee, all the while unconscious of your ability to navigate these very basic social situations.
All day, we communicate with people in both subtle and sophisticated ways. Sometimes, we may beat ourselves up over articulation or misconstrued information, but we mostly manage to get our messages across.
Living in a country where I don’t speak the native language, this has all changed. The simplest exchanges are labored. I overthink every phrase, every question, every sentence – even when I know what I want to say (mas o menos). The words are clunky and come out in staccato bursts that immediately give me away as a foreigner, an extranjero.
At this point, the other person generally responds to me in English, if they speak it. You might assume I’d prefer this over struggling through Spanish, but I don’t. To revert back to my mother tongue is to throw in the towel, to say stay stuck in the zone of incommunicability, to remain without the skeleton key that will allow me to move easily from place to place, person to person. It’s a hall pass that says ‘you can get by this time.’
I admit some of this is certainly a personality flaw. I am nervous by nature and tend to beat myself when I make mistakes. There are some people who are more confident in their delivery, less prone to recoil when corrected. Still, I think it’s an issue most foreigners face. They face the same impassability at large.
Before I go on, there is something you should know. I love language. I’m not the most eloquent individual when it comes to public speaking, but as far back as I can remember, I’ve been enchanted with the way word choice and delivery can drastically change meaning. So I studied writing and literature and other languages. I rarely take text at face value, rather reading as closely as possible to try to understand why someone chose to convey information in a particular way. What’s the meaning behind their choice?
Living in a country that speaks a language I don’t know has really thrown a wrench in that pursuit, mostly because I struggle to figure out what someone is saying point-blank – let alone any deeper meaning.
It’s certainly been a challenge, but also a gift.
You should also know that before I moved to Spain, I anticipated this struggle. It was something I told people I was looking forward to when they asked me if I was worried about not being fluent in Spanish.
Yes. I told them, but I also know some Italian and French. That should help. (It doesn’t really. Don’t be fooled.)
And, I said, I was excited to gain a new perspective on language. It’s a great opportunity to understand what it’s like to not be able to communicate freely, automatically.
What I’ve come to see is that in our privileged position as English speakers in the United States, it’s very easy to shrug our shoulders when someone comes up to us and attempts to communicate in another language. Although we consider ourselves a melting pot of cultures and backgrounds, most of us speak one language exclusively. And I might go so far as to say we dismiss people who cannot speak it back to us.
Now that I’ve been on the other side of that conversation, on the receiving end of the shrug and eye roll, I DO understand more about what it’s like.
Just because you’re silent doesn’t mean you’re stupid
I’ve been fortunate in this transition because I have a partner who is better at speaking the language than I am. Chris has passable Spanish, and enough of a command to handle important conversations with our hostelier, the real estate agent at the inmobiliaria, our landlord Eduardo, the security guard at the Extranjero’s office.
For as many words and phrases as I’d learned in preparation for the move, I still struggled to put together complete and coherent thoughts like: “We found an apartment today. We’d like to leave tomorrow, but our reservation goes through Friday. Is that OK?”
In those moments, I have to sit back and just listen. Even if I want to communicate or chime in, I sometimes just don’t have the words to say what I’m thinking.
You feel stupid and submissive, even if you’re neither.
And in those moments, I’ve thought about all the people who have been in the exact scenario in the United States. Sitting across a desk from a real estate agent, you’re desperate to find an apartment, but unable to fluidly communicate your needs and means. How can someone trust you if you can’t even reply to their basic questions?
Yet, they do. And they did. And I was extremely grateful for their patience.
Practice makes perfect
One thing I’ve come to understand is that: A lack of fluency is not the result of laziness or reluctance to learn; it’s the product of fear.
How do you become fluent in another language? You practice it. As far as I’m concerned, it’s really the only way, and I’ve seen evidence of that here. People who have studied English for years will pay a native speaker 15 Euro an hour just to sit there and hold a conversation with them. There’s a definite ‘use it or lose it’ mentality.
But putting a new language to practice is like trying to learn the trumpet in public. You’re going to mess up. It’s going to sound bad. You’re going to hit the wrong notes … a lot.
If you’re in an environment that’s encouraging, helpful and patient, you’re probably going to work through the errors and improve. But if you’re in an environment where most people would rather not deal with you, or are otherwise unwilling to meet you halfway, you might clam up and revert back to your personal zone of fluency.
Speaking well is your ‘Open sesame’
I’ve started to understand that language is the invisible key that we usually don’t even know we’re carrying around in our back pockets. It opens doors to grant us access to most everything we want and need. But language also has the ability to lock them against us.
If you’re a fluent speaker, the world you see may have no doors, no locks, just entrances opening automatically as you pass by should you want to enter. Do I WANT to do this today? Do I really need that? I don’t have time to do that right now.
If you’re not fluent, you might see only barriers that have to be overcome. Will I be able to explain what I need? Will they ask something I can’t understand? Or will I crash and burn?
Case in point
I went to the library this weekend to get a library card so I could check out some basic Spanish books and check out their English selection. Trying to feign confidence, I waltzed right up to the information window and told the guy “Me gustaría una carné de la biblioteca.” He looked at me, and looked back at the security guard sitting at the desk behind him, and looked back. “Car-NEY,” he said. “Car-NEY.”
“Sí, sí,” I said back, not quite sure what to make of this.
“Upstairs on the second floor,” he added. “To the right.”
It wasn’t until later that I realized why he had so fiercely corrected my pronunciation. Without the accent over the final e, the same word means meat. So I was essentially telling him that I would like some meat for the library. Whoops.
Vergüenza is a word I’ve heard a few times since I moved to Logroño, and it’s one I was excited to learn. It sounds like a nasty virus, and it is something that plagues a lot of people – myself included.
It means embarrassment, and I thought I could sprinkle it around after I messed up pronunciation or said something wrong. Carne/Carné? Whoops. Tengo vergüenza. Didn’t understand me when I asked for dos vinos tinto? Whoops. Tengo vergüenza. Estoy aprendiendo Español.
But I see now there is little to no room for embarrassment when you’re trying to speak a new language. It’s not something you should apologize away.
You have to take every correction as a learning experience, an opportunity to improve. The thing is, you have to go through all the trial and error to really become fluent. I think it’s a rite of passage – and it’s part of the adventure.
It’s because it’s difficult that speaking multiple languages is coveted. It means you have more than one key. You can between groups and cultures unnoticed, contributing to both and also taking the best from each one.