This is how I imagine things go when I try and speak Spanish, based on the bizarre looks/borderline hostile body language I get back. We’ll do it all in English just to get the joke across.
Welcome all! Cue the curtains. And turn off your damn phone.
Scene 1: with character, Me and character, Citizen hoping to be left alone. I will be Me.
Me: Excuse me sir, how are you today?
Citizen hoping to be left alone: only nods, already wishing I would leave him alone.
M: You know what I can take bus for the is street 59?
Chtbla: scrunches face slowly for a 15 full seconds. What?
M: Ah, I must say it differently and more slowly. Sorry. Flash a smile. Which you know bus I can drink for street 59?
Chtbla: My request ever-so-slowly sinks in. Maybe a full minute has passed, hard to say. YessiryoucangrabthebusthatsaysSINAandtakeittostreet35thentaketheotherwithstreet190onthefronttostreet59…
M: I caught none of that. I hate my life. Possibly you can say this little bit a slower? Thank you.
Chtbla: Character now visibly doesn’t like me and his demeanor seems to imply a request to leave this country and never return. Yes, I said, you…can…take thebusthatsaysSINAandtakeittostreet35thentaketheotherwithstreet190onthefronttostreet59…
M: Quick, act like like you understand so you don’t look dumb in front of this total stranger! Flash an even bigger smile! Ah perfect, much thank you sir, great day you have, yes?
Chtbla: Briefly shows the fakest smile to ever grace the Western Hemisphere and walks off, his dislike for gringos amplified by a minimum of 7-10%. Or that’s how it seems to me.
Cue the curtains. Start sweeping up the popcorn. This is more or less my experience almost every time I speak to a stranger.
So learning Spanish. This is what I’ve picked up in six months of Latin American travel: You’re not going to learn in one month, five days or some other crack crash-course program. Fluency will take you years, people. YEARS! If that seems like too much work then don’t bother. You won’t really learn unless you live somewhere where it’s around you all the time. There will be days when you feel good about speaking but with one awkward conversation and an impatient retort you will fall back at square one. And this is the queen bee point-to-take-away my friend, study all you like in your room with your flashcards and programs and worksheets, but you simply DON’T KNOW SHIT until you get out of the house and speak with someone who isn’t your friend.
This whole process brings me back to learning to guitar, which I more or less started about ten years ago. Both learning Spanish and the guitar—around the start and for the first year or so—rely on you sort of being just bored enough to stick with it. It was a really long time before I got comfortable with playing, and while I never did practice hours a day, I did simply stick with it, and eventually things came together. Similar aspects are happening with Spanish. I can compose tons of thoughts now and (mostly, sometimes) have the confidence to at least try something with someone.
Next is confidence. This is a really obvious phrase, but read it twice: If you have the confidence to do something, you will do it and do it well. If you don’t have the confidence to do something well, they you won’t do it well. Duh, right? I think I play the guitar really well, and will play in front of people no problem. I think I write well, which is why I’m not afraid to put these up on FB. Those aspects were a long time coming though. I can remember a time when I wouldn’t dare play the guitar in front of someone else.
Now I want to get back to the queen bee point-to-take-away from earlier. I did some flashcards and created a nice little Duolingo account (which is a great, free, language learning tool and certainly better than doing nothing) before coming to Latin America. But for the type of learner I am, not much is really learned in the bedroom all alone, it’s out on the street making hundreds of mistakes. This is music as well. I remember thinking I was getting pretty good at the guitar. But once I got in front of other people, who don’t play exactly the same like a record might, I found myself embarrassed and clueless once again. But once I pushed through it, jammed with so many different people, I found I was better than I ever was before and confidence was near perfect.
THIS IS SPANISH (I think and hope). Practicing something with someone you do not know is how to take it to the next level. Oh you’re not ready yet? You never really will be “ready to start”, so just get it over with and throw yourself in. Wether you are learning the guitar or Spanish or something else, the first hundred thousand times will be hard with other people. Just keep pushing. Get out of the house with it, get out of your comfort zone with it. Take it to the next level.
You simply have to get used to looking kind of stupid on a regular basis. In theory, this gets better, but it doesn’t really feel that way. How strong is your capacity to look dumb? Do you have the nerve to speak in front of multiple people who will not or will not want to understand you? You do, you maybe just know it yet. Also, I feel like when I finally do learn some confidence here, my entire life outlook will be stronger. I think it’s a good life skill to not care what others think about you and constantly ignoring strange looks and obvious laughs at your expense help that.
This was going around the Internet a few months back and is worth a watch. My life people…
Also, I know this sounds a little low self-esteem-y, but right right now, I don’t really feel like it’s ever going to happen, fluent speaking that is. But, I can remember this learning the guitar, the total and absolute hopelessness. I would just have patience, try something else and wait some more. I’m not sure when, or how, or how many damn guardian angels were assigned to the task, but somewhere I got some confidence with the guitar. Will this happen with Spanish? I don’t really think so, but I know so, get that?
So this goes for anything in life, but you will be very surprised how good you can get at something simply sticking with it and taking it a little out of your comfort zones.
More to come.
Hi Hunter, great post! Totally agree, it takes years. People who never take that step to go and live in another country won’t know how much effort we put into saying the simplest things. In the end it doesn’t matter if we use that subjuntivo correctly… it’s more important to get by and make ourselves understood.
Hey, I got really good at reading body language 😉 and seem to get quite a bit of context without words. Think about it, even in our native tongue 70% of what we communicate is actually perceived via body language or the sound of your voice anyway…Enjoy your travels!
Ina! Thanks for the read. Sometimes i brag to my friends that I know a German traveler friend who speaks four languages, though as I travel more I see that’s not too uncommon, especially for you super-educated Europeans.
At this point I just need to speak speak speak, but it’s hard right?
How is your Spanish coming? much farther than mine, but you French speakers have an unfair advantage lol!