NOTE: Greetings travelers, I’d like to introduce Kayleigh, traveling linguist and future UN interpreter, to our Up Up and a Bear family. Come, Word Magician! And enthrall us with your tales!
Here’s the thing, folks: Spanish seems pretty easy. This is especially true when you’re sitting in class at a universidad in rural Indiana. And even more when you’re talking to your exclusively-English extended familia from Michigan during Thanksgiving. You’re translating things like “I am going to the mall to buy a coat,” or “The professor is really nice,” and let me tell ya, you feel so cool spouting out this foreign language. You’re on the top of the world as you ask “Where are my shoes?” in Spanish and your zapatos are right there, but you feel great because you didn’t use any English to find them. Life is muy bueno.
Then you move to Madrid.
Picture this: I’m on the 8-hour flight to Spain, having just left my family and my home to see another corner of the world, and I’m already hearing Spanish all around me. Excitement brews for an hour, but then I realize that I can’t bounce my knee and smile for 8 hours straight, so I sleep. A few uncomfortable hours pass and I regain some consciousness (I wish I could paint a picture for you of how wonderful my hair looked at that point- come and get it, chicos), and I sit up with my headphones still in my ears and Panic! At The Disco playing on repeat. As I fumble unsuccessfully with my glasses, I see a blurry figure in the seat in front of me turn around to face my direction and say something that is drowned out by Brendon Urie’s voice in my ears. I yank my headphones quickly and decide that my glasses sitting crookedly on face will have to suffice so I can see him, and this is how the conversation goes:
Me: “Lo siento… ¿Qué?” (Sorry, what?)
Or that’s how it sounds when you just woke up, you haven’t spoken Spanish since the end of fall semester, and you’re all-around socially flustered. Only a brief moment passes as the Spanish words are forming and catching up in my brain and I’m processing all of it and-
Him: Oh. No Spanish. You no Spanish.
I don’t know which dropped faster, my jaw or my self-esteem. Mr. Español turned back around to face front, chuckling to himself, and I sat there completely dejected. He didn’t even give me a chance! Then my mind starts racing. Why am I doing this? Do I know Spanish? Will I be okay in Madrid? What if I’m not fluent at the end? Can I flag down that flight attendant and ask her to turn the plane around and make a bee-line for my English comfort zone? WOULD I EVEN KNOW HOW TO SAY THAT IN SPANISH?
So I freak out for 3 hours and that’s basically the end of that anecdote. That was three months ago.
Here’s the gist of the story: That was my very first experience as someone pursuing fluency in a foreign country, and it was terrifying. I wanted to scream at that hombre, “NO. I SPANISH. I SPANISH!” But he did teach me two very important lessons:
1) I needed to get used to that kind of situation, because it would happen about 100 more times in the next two months.
2) He was entirely correct.
There was so much to be learned. At that time, I did not Spanish. I had no concept of the difficulties with dialect, accents, slang, speed of speech, idioms, nada. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Sure, 2016 is my sixth year of studying Spanish through school, and I was in an upper level class in college. I should be pretty proficient, right? Yeah, that’s what you would think. Then you meet a girl from France and she says she’s been studying Spanish for about a year and is completely fluent, and then goes on to talk about the 4 other languages she speaks.
I digress. This is not a rant about the American foreign language education system. That’s for another day.
Because today, we need to talk about how learning a foreign language sucks.
Learning a language is saying, “Lo siento, ¿qué? ¿Repite, por favor? ¿Otra vez?” over and over and over because you can’t catch all the words the first time something is said.
Learning a language is saying “muy bien” 200 times because you don’t remember any other adjectives when you’re under pressure.
Learning a language is having people hear you speak Spanish and then saying “Ohhh…. English?” and sometimes saying yes because you’re so frustrated.
Him: Oh. No Spanish. You no Spanish… That was my very first experience as someone pursuing fluency in a foreign country, and it was terrifying. I wanted to scream at that hombre, “NO. I SPANISH. I SPANISH!”
Your head hurts at the end of the day because your brain is always active as you contemplate an entirely new set of words. Hearing English is like a refreshing oasis for a split second before you return to slaving away at the Spanish that’s coming at your ears. There are days spent on the verge of tears because everybody in class is turning in an assignment about which you had no knowledge because it must’ve slipped through the cracks of your understanding. It’s similar to constantly banging your head against a wall, except the wall is constructed of vocabulary words and conjugations.
It’s a mess. That’s how one would describe learning a language.
With that being said, I should acknowledge that it is the most beautiful mess that I could ever imagine.
In spite of and including the former rant, I am completely head-over-heels in amor with the process that I’ve gone through in the past few months and that I continue to go through. Out of the frustration and struggle has come pride and tangible ability. There is no better feeling than realizing that there are MILLIONS of people in this world with whom you now have the power to comfortably communicate like you never could before.
Learning a language is incredible.
Learning a language is that moment when two people pull you aside in the airport to ask if you could translate between Spanish and English for them so they can communicate better.
Learning a language is the way you slip up using Spanish phrases during an English conversation, like saying “¿En serio?” to an American friend instead of “Are you serious?”
Learning a language is watching the transition in the attitude of Spanish natives when you adopt their accent and their mannerisms, and suddenly you are no longer a stranger, but simply someone who lives down the block.
I love Madrid, of that I have no doubt. It is a part of me now, it is a home. But when I return to the U.S. and I am missing Spain, my heart will simultaneously be aching for the Spanish language and for the experience of speaking and hearing it every day. It’s a beautiful, complex, rewarding language, and one about which I feel passionate. I identify the language with the culture and the people who have been so accepting and welcoming, and as a whole, I can’t help but have the utmost respect.
So as I scrawl dozens of new words in the margins of my notebook every day and torch my cell phone’s data by using the Google Translate app, I realize that this is exactly how I want to spend my life. One day I will be fluent in Spanish, and then I’ll move on to studying another language. I never want to be not learning all I can know about language. Because it’s a pretty amazing mess.
Ama lo que haces.
Love what you do.
For more stories related to learning a new language, check out these great articles:
Menorca reflects on the change in dialect in From German to Swiss-German: Getting around in Basel.
Want the best tips for learning a new language abroad? Read Els Mahieu’s guide: Tips for learning a language abroad.
Perhaps you’re thinking about going to Hungary; if that’s the case, check out 10 most useful Hungarian Phrases for Travelers by Shiv.
How to survive the language barrier is Jessica’s great guide – check it out!
You’ll be prepared to head to Finland with this great lesson from Shannon: Learn Finnish with me! The most useful Finnish words for travelers.
Es-tu Francais? I know a little French aussi, but not as much as Jennifer who will take you on a journey with her story: how I quit my day job and finally pursued my dream of speaking French.
Great resource for immersive language study abroad: language study abroad articles.
Travel on my friends…