Learning a Language (Spanish)
I cannot identify the moment Spanish became easier for me — the moment it “clicked”. But I know it happened. If not one moment, there was a definitely a series of moments that gave me a newfound confidence in the language. That confidence came with a new sense of alacrity. Not only did I feel like I could be myself in Spanish, but I also discovered that there were parts of me in Spanish I could not express in English.
One of the best feelings is to fully understand the meaning of a word in one language that does not have a raw translation into another language. It was on a call with a friend back home when I knew the exact word to describe his behavior in Spanish, but I failed to elucidate to him the significance of this word in English. Because it’s inexplicable. I still find myself unable to explain pesado to non-Spanish speakers.
People told me when I first arrived that I came with a level of Spanish much higher than most other foreigners. This was quite the encouragement, although so many days I would come home just wanting to fly back to California. While this may have been true, my level was still too low to survive in Extremadura; with the thick accents that mimic the linguistic patterns of Andalucía to the extremely fast rate of speech, one can hardly understand any of the Extremeño Spanish at first. My level of Spanish comprehension shot up rapidly my first four weeks here in Spain. One of the most instrumental tools in helping me do so was my journal. Every day in class, I would jot down with assiduity every single phrase or word I did not know. My classmates would even come up to me, observe what I was doing, and give me more phrases. My daily language exchange sessions with Roberto also proved to be very useful; he would force me to speak in Spanish using different tenses.
The first big change I noticed was my reduced time in conjugating verbs; in fact, I did not need to think anymore to conjugate verbs in Spanish. In a language where each subject has its own special verb conjugation, this proved to be one of the biggest difficulties in the beginning.
The second and most notable change was my confidence. I no longer relied on Laura or Roberto to come with me when I had to speak to people. I found myself willing to interact with more people because I could finally understand them. As I spoke to more people, I received the encouragement needed to continue doing so when people told me that I spoke well. I no longer began my conversations with ¿hablas inglés? (Do you speak English?).
Now I play games. Harmless games, of course. My favorite is the “Where Am I From?” game. This is not to say that I equate my level of Spanish with that of the native speakers. This more comes from my fascination of the plethora of accents in Spain; moreover, my hours of analysis into these accents have lent themselves directly into my speech. One Thursday after art class, I decided to take a taxi back home. It was around 9pm and although I would normally walk back home, I needed to come back home quickly to work on a chemistry project. The taxi driver was a cheerful middle-aged man from Badajoz. He picked me up, and we had about four minutes of small talk before I asked him: ¿De dónde crees que soy? (Where do you think I’m from?). He told me that my accent was more articulate and guessed Madrid. When I told him I was from the United States, I swear he turned around at every proceeding stop light to turn around and look at my face. His reaction was one of those that gave me more confidence: ¡no me digas, hablas español estupendamente! (“No way! You speak Spanish stupendously!”).
As my ability to express myself in Spanish has grown, those around me have seen my personality transition from a more taciturn version of myself to one of ardour.
Much like many others, I believed that simply existing in a foreign country would teach me the country’s language. If I had stuck to that “maxim”, I certainly would not have the level of Spanish I have now. The hours I have spent reading texts, re-reading texts, watching shows, asking questions, and journalling in Spanish have certainly contributed to the knowledge I have gained. My awareness of my ephemeral time here has given me the strongest desire to make every second count. I’ve also learnt that some amount of sagacity is required to truly further one’s own language skills within a certain window of time.
I obviously still do not speak like a native. There are instances where I must think in English and translate into Spanish before I speak or write. One of the most difficult Spanish concepts — the subjunctive tense — is now my muse. I must make a mental note of every instance of the subjunctive I hear in speech or observe in text. Finding this muse completely changed the course of my journey in Spain. It sparked within me an ingenuity and the want to unearth every facet of this language. As I continue to uncover words, phrases, tenses, and more in this language, I know I need to remind myself how lucky I am to be surrounded by people so willing to help. I’ve learnt that language is a part of my identity, and that now, Spanish successfully embeds itself in me forever. I’ve learnt through this journey that when you speak with people in a language they can understand, they speak to you from the mind; when you speak to them in their native tongue, they speak to you from the heart. And the things they say from their hearts offer the best lessons, experiences, and memories which stay with you forever.