Learning Spanish, Part I: How it feels

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When I meet other expats here in Bogotá, one of the first questions inevitably asked is how’s your Spanish?  It’s possible to live here without learning the language, but that was not the kind of experience I wanted.  Cody and I made a pact in 2013 that we’d learn another language someday and when we moved to Colombia I knew that even if I could get by without learning Spanish, I’d have a much richer experience if I did.

After six months of classes and a year of being immersed in the language, I’d say that I’m conversational—but still far from fluent.  In fact, the more I venture out conversationally, the more I bump into topics where I don’t have the words I need to articulate myself!  That said, this week’s post about language is coming to you in two parts—the first being a bit about my experience as an adult learning a new language and the second, which will be a few pieces of practical advice.

First of all, learning a new language has given me a brand new compassion for screaming babies on airplanes…of course they’re crying, it’s frustrating to want to get your point across but not have the words to do it.  And right after that wave of feeling was an immediate shattering of misconceptions about how “easy” it is to learn a foreign language.  If you think that you speak Spanish because you took a few classes in college and did great with your slowly speaking professor in the hallway during an oral exam, think again.  Another “nice thought” is that a module or two here and there in a language software program is enough to set you on the path to fluency…nope, that isn’t realistic either.  Learning Spanish over this past year has been an emotional experience just as much as it has been mental.

Below are a few of the speed bumps which caught me by surprise.

Get used to being out of your comfort zone.

I don’t like making mistakes or being laughed at, but both have become a part of everyday life…I had to throw my hands up and just go with it because I don’t think there is any way you can become proficient at a new language if you’re afraid to make mistakes.  The good news is that the worst thing that has ever happened to me was a chuckle or a quizzical look.  Wait, that’s not true—our first month in Bogotá we used the same driver each day, who emphatically told me how much better Cody was at speaking Spanish.  Thanks, Germán.

Putting aside the feeling of being dorky while speaking, what about the deer-in-the-headlights look you’ll inevitably slip into when someone hears a two syllable Spanish reply and overestimates your fluency?  The difficulties of not understanding and feeling sheepish about speaking up are just as difficult but must be overcome just the same.  No worries, just explain you’re learning and ask them to repeat it.   Todavía estoy aprendiendo español is a good first phrase to master.

Every day will be different, so don’t be too hard on yourself.

Unfortunately, learning a foreign language isn’t a slow and steady linear climb—it’s more like the image of an EKG but with a few more flat lines.  Even after more than a year in Colombia, I find myself getting tripped up on simple phrases—just think of how many ways you can ask where a person is from!  Or if I meet someone from a different part of the country, with a different accent or who talks quickly, I sometimes won’t understand a thing.  Somedays I feel like my brain isn’t connected to my mouth—I know what needs to be said but the syllables just don’t come out in order.  On the other hand, other days it just clicks and words or conjugations that felt like rocks in my mouth come out easy and feel normal.  I especially love those moments when I’m so used to responding in Spanish that a sí or gracias inadvertently slips out during an English conversation.

No two days are the same, to the point where Cody and I have text conversations weekly involving a situation where we had an amazing level of understanding or felt like complete idiots.  On those idiot days, I always think back to a conversation I had with a girlfriend who moved to the states when she was in high school and didn’t know a word of English.  She reminded me that even after speaking English for two decades, she still makes mistakes and is learning new words; languages are big, unwieldy, living things and there is no way around the fact that it takes time and an attitude of continual learning to become proficient.  Rome wasn’t built in a day, folks.

It takes a lot of energy.

There was a point after our first couple months in Bogota that I just didn’t have the energy to go out of the house.  I did of course, but I was never without my earbuds or without my nose buried in a book—anything to avoid a verbal interaction beyond good morning.  I wasn’t trying to be anti-social, it was because I cannot describe the sheer amount of mental energy it takes to spend your entire day listening and comprehending.  By the end of the day, I was wiped out!  I was completely caught off guard at how little energy I need to hear English and never really considered how often I multitask while talking to Cody.  When having conversations in Spanish, there is no multitasking—if my mind wanders for a split second, my grasp of the conversation is gone and I have to wait until the topic changes to join in again.  It definitely took my brain a few months to adjust to being “on” like this all of the time.

It’s all about confidence.

Cody and I have muttered this sentence to each other in wonder probably a hundred times since we’ve moved here—it’s incredible how much confidence impacts your ability to speak well.  For instance, if I am with a driver who doesn’t speak English, I have no problem rattling on and on about places I’ve been, my favorite museums or restaurants and what I did last weekend.  Or my friend from Russia—our common language is Spanish and she and I will go out to lunch and I’ll lose track of time as we crack up telling stories.  But, if one of Cody’s colleagues offers me a simple greeting in Spanish, I go mute.  Somehow, knowing that Spanish is the only language option greatly increases my confidence in my ability to speak.  On the contrary, there is a bit of shirking away from Spanish when I know that my conversation partner speaks perfect English.  My internal quandary is always something like why would I put them through my floundering Spanish when quick, easy exchanges are possible in English?  I don’t have any tips for getting around this one—there are just some people to whom I’ll always speak to in English.

Don’t worry, it hasn’t all been gloom and doom!  Honestly, I’ve been surprised at how quickly I’ve gotten to a place where I feel comfortable communicating in pretty much any situation.  Maybe there have been a few chuckles, but people have truly only been kind to me when I stumble over my words.  And if I’m being candid, learning to take myself a little less seriously has only been a good thing!

2 thoughts on “Learning Spanish, Part I: How it feels

  1. Yes, spot on! Being immersed in another language is the most mentally exhausting thing!! And no, classroom study does not prepare you for regional accents, slang, fast-talking or mumbling. Plus the insecurity…apparently I sound like a child when I roll my R’s. But it’s amazing how much you absorb without even knowing. I think most people are eager to help you learn if you’re sincerely trying.

    This is a terrific post because the language process can be quite a shock and disappointment if you’re expecting more effortless assimilation. I know people who had terrible experiences or gave up on a place because of this, which is a shame.

    1. Thank you for your fantastic comments! I completely agree–I’ve never been so tired than our first few months here, even if I wasn’t a part of conversations it is taxing to be immersed in another language 24/7. At the end of the day all I wanted was to disappear into a Netflix vortex…

      I think your expectation coming into a situation like learning a new language is crucial–I may put that in part two, so thank you for mentioning that! I’ll be sure you get royalties from google ads (probably about $0.0485 per year) ;)

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