On Mastering a Second Language

When I was a baby, my parents spoke to me only in English, so naturally I grew into a child who could only speak English. And as it went, that never really changed.

After seven years of Hebrew school, I could read the Hebrew language and understand a few key words. But immediately after cashing in my Bat Mitzvah, the comprehension disappeared to the point that it’s like I never learned anything at all.

Spanish was a little different. Thanks to some great teachers over five years of high school and college classes, I found myself enjoying the learning process and actually picking up some of the language. My conversational skills held up when my family traveled to Costa Rica senior year of high school; while far from fluent, I could converse haltingly with just about anyone. And with the help of a small flask of coffee liquor in La Selva, my first real one-on-one Spanish conversation took place with an overnight security guard named Antonio. The more I drank, the more Spanish I spoke. We poured our hearts out on that jungle night and I understood everything he told me. It was nothing short of miraculous. I’ll never forget Antonio and I hope that he was able to overcome his intimacy issues.

Aside from brief interludes of travel, until recently, my life had been mostly conducted in English. It’s hard to maintain a language when you never speak it. After my last Spanish class in 2005, my limited knowledge started to fade away.

My boyfriend’s first language is Spanish, but we met in English, which he speaks perfectly. Shortly afterwards, when I told him I could speak a little Spanish, he was delighted. He came at me with a barrage of words so fast and intense that I could only respond with… “¿Que?” And from then on, we stuck mostly to English. Unless, of course, we were drinking. Or texting – the iPhone’s international keyboard has a remarkable capacity to help with pesky accent marks or misspellings.

The more I texted, the more I realized that I really do know a lot of Spanish words. But my ability to follow them spoken aloud was limited. What good is a language if you can only write it? It looked like my future in Spanish-speaking places would consist of walking around with a notebook and pen, writing notes to anyone I wanted to talk to. After I met some of Xavier’s family for the first time, it was hard to imagine anything else. They spoke mostly in Spanish, and although everyone in the group spoke slowly so that I could follow, I still found myself hopelessly lost. If I tried to contribute something to the conversation, all I received were strange looks – I’d completely missed the point. Lesson learned: real-life conversations don’t work well when you’re filling in the blanks a la Mad Libs. The only way I could converse was one-on-one at a snail’s pace, or when fortified with alcohol.

Clearly, more practice was necessary.

The next year, we arrived in Ecuador. Despite the fact that I’d spent a year listening to Spanish music, watching every Spanish movie that hit Redbox, and constantly attempting Spanish conversation with my native-speaker roommate, things were confusing. As anyone who has learned another language knows, the line to understanding is best crossed with deep attention. If you pour all of your focus and concentration into following a conversation, you will be amazed at your prowess and understanding. “I do know this!” you will marvel to yourself as the lively conversation blossoms around you.

After about six minutes, you’re mentally exhausted. Your gaze bounces around the group, following the speakers, smiling when they do, frowning when things get serious, just trying to stay engaged – and then you realize you’re just going through the motions and your only thoughts are in English and they’re something like “oh, no. I don’t get any of this!” because all of the words have become strange sounds. You mentally slap yourself awake, re-engage, lock onto the conversation. Wait, what’s that word? You ask someone quietly, hoping it will make you look good: you’re comprehending enough to have caught a word you don’t know in the midst of everything. “Laverde? Oh, no, la verde – the green one.” Yeah, you knew that. Facepalm. It’s over. Maybe tomorrow you’ll try again.

The other problem is that lots of people want to practice your language. You’ll try your best to converse en Espanol and they reply without a second’s thought in English. While this is incredibly helpful and comforting during those times of mental exhaustion – and those times are numerous – sometimes you just want an immersion. You want to be forced to speak the language, because only speaking it constantly will make you fluent.

When I was actually able to speak Spanish , I realized just how many random words I have picked up from living with a native speaker – and not all of it’s good. The first incident happened when we were in the car with a group of family members. Driving into Quito, a motorcyclist cut us off and Xavier had to jam on the brakes. Everyone was jostled a little bit. Always happy to comment on a traffic situation, I muttered something that we say frequently around the house, thinking it meant “dumb motorcyclist!” There were gasps. The word was actually an incredibly crude way to refer to a part of the male anatomy. Fortunately, this was the second day that we were spending with Xavier’s mom – so it wasn’t like that was her first impression of me, or anything.

Another day, we were pulling out of a parking garage and I opened our car window to give the attendant a tip. “Here, juebon,” I called to get his attention – I’d heard this word often when Xavier talks to his friends. In context, it sounds like “dude” or “buddy.” Well, when everyone gasped and then cracked up laughing, I learned it actually is referring to a bodily orifice.

Lesson learned: learning words in context is great, but be sure to clarify their meaning before using them yourself.

One of my goals for 2012 was to improve my Spanish. How am I doing?

After our trip, I’d say much better. But there’s a long way to go.

3 thoughts on “On Mastering a Second Language

  1. Pavlov

    LOL… goes to show guy language amongst friends is much like working on "the line" in a restaurant… pretty crude, but effective! Thanks for sharing, nicely written post!


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