I will never forget this one time in 7th grade when my family was on vacation in Florida. We were staying at a hotel getting ready to head to the beach and a Spanish speaking maid knocked on our door. My Mom was the first to answer. My Mom being very sweet, she tried in her best Spanish to speak to the maid. We weren’t quite ready for the maid to come in yet so my Mom said “Cinco minutos, amor”. Translated “Five minutes, LOVE”. The maid gave my mom one of those looks, slowly backed away, and my Dad and I (Spanish speaking snobs) were left laughing at my Mom’s expense. Little did I know that 15 years later I would be confronted with this same problem time and time again but worse. Whose laughing now?
Mom and I in Mexico after she’d forgiven me and gave Spanish a try again.
One question that Dan and I are confronted with constantly when meeting new people while traveling is “How is your Spanish?” We usually stare at each other with the same look of dread and Dan will repeat like an over rehearsed line, “She is good (pointing at me) but I’m still learning.” Then this poor soul will usually turn to me and ask how or where I learned Spanish. If I’m feeling lazy I just say I studied in Spain (which is my answer most of the time). But the truth is that I’ve been studying and speaking Spanish for over half of my life, since I was 12 years old. I took Spanish all through junior high, high school, majored in it in college, studied abroad in Spain, worked for a Spanish company for 1.5 years in Chicago where I was speaking, reading and writing in Spanish constantly and have been fortunate enough to travel to many Spanish speaking countries since then. I should have this language down.
The first person who really taught me Spanish, my host mom Manuela.
The long answer and truth that wants to burst out of me when people ask “How is my Spanish” is that it SUCKS! I’m getting seriously frustrated with this language which is something I’ve never really experienced before. I used to get excited to speak in Spanish to the guy who sold the pizza outside our favorite college bar, the kitchen staff at the restaurants I worked at or cab drivers in Chicago. Now I’m just getting jaded.
I always thought it was just my lack of practice and own short term memory that loves to push out old information (which is definitely part of it) but I knew those couldn’t be the only reasons, until I was shown this video:
How relieved was I to be shown this video by the man who owns our hostel here in El Bolson. Other people feel the way I do!
When we first arrived in Colombia, I honestly just starred blankly at people when they talked to me. The Colombians say their “ll’s” as a “j” sound and this is something that took me forever to catch onto. What the hell is a caJAY (calle – street) and who is eJA (ella – she)? They probably thought I was braindead as I was trying to first process what the hell they said and then trying to formulate a response. Usually before I could do so, they would just answer me in English and that ended that. Or sometimes, I would just completely give them the wrong response, they’d give me this look of pity, and then answer me in English. I’ve even gotten a couple of finger wags.
Attempting to ask the cheese stick guy in Medellin when he opens.
One of my first days in Medellin, I was walking down Avenida Poblado and some man started yelling “Hola MONA!” at me. Ignoring him, I continued on thinking either he is calling me a MONKEY or he is saying that I’m cute (which is what people from Spanish use to say a pet or a baby is cute). After asking my language exchange partner, I found out that it means “blonde” and isn’t meant to be offensive or a compliment. Just kind of a fact. Okay, got it. So not only is the accent different than Spain or Mexican Spanish that I’m used to, but there is different vocabulary and phrases as well. Great.
After getting accustomed to Colombian Spanish, I was suddenly in the dark again when we got to Argentina. This accent is even harder to understand and they use even more different vocabulary than I’m used to! When we arrived at our hostel in El Bolsón, the man who owns it was giving us an extensive run down of all of the things to do. He kept saying something about a kaSHACK (kayak) and was even doing the paddling motion with his arms. For some reason, it just wouldn’t click and I asked him what it was. Feeling stupid I realized that Argentines (at least in this region) say their “y’s”, “ll’s”, and more it seems like as “SHA”.
KaSHAcking in Lago Epuyen for Dan’s birthday.
In Argentina, aguacate (avocado) is palta, fresa (strawberry) is frutilla, huerta (garden) is chacara and the list continues on. Can you see now why I feel like I can’t speak Spanish? How am I supposed to keep up with all of this?
The good news is that after awhile, I will start to catch on after a lot of exhausting conversations and many “Whats?” and “Please repeats”. The bad news is that we are leaving Argentina next month to Chile. Therefore, many of the precious vocabulary words I have learned will probably go to waste and be forgotten. I’ve also read and heard from Argentines and foreigners alike that Chileans are almost impossible to understand.
Learning a language is never easy and I have long since accepted and enjoyed a lifelong challenge of learning Spanish. I just thought by now I’d have it all together and would be able to speak and understand with ease. After seeing more of the Spanish speaking world, I realize that isn’t the case and I will have to continue this journey to perfect my skills.
To make this challenge somewhat easier on myself, I’ve developed some methods that have helped me so far:
- SpanishDict App – this is a really good dictionary and almost always has any word I type into it. If I’m in a conversation with someone, I whip it out and look up any words I didn’t understand. It also helps to commit them to memory.
- I tell someone right away if there is a word I don’t understand or if what they are talking about in general confuses me. This way, I avoid getting lost even further.
- There are some websites such as MatadorNetwork that have phrases or words that are specific to each country. Some of these were helpful to learn before I went to Colombia.
- I don’t let anyone speak English to Dan and I anymore (unless they want to practice). In the beginning, people would ask English or Spanish? and right away we’d switch to English. As mentally draining as it is to always speak in Spanish, it only becomes that much harder to learn the language and get in the groove of speaking it.
- Speaking to at least one person in Spanish everyday has been very helpful. There were some days in Medellin or even in Bariloche when I’d just be in an English bubble all day – talking to Dan, writing in the blog, talking to friends back home and would realize that all I said in Spanish was “Gracias” to the lady at the supermarket.
- I have accepted my fate in screwing up. I’m going to forget and not know words, phrases, not be able to conjugate verbs. I’m going to continue to receive weird looks, finger wags, and corrections but I have to be okay with it. It’s all part of language learning.
Mom, I’m so sorry for laughing at you all those years ago and probably making you feel really stupid. I’ve probably told someone I love them and far worse by now. I now know what it feels like to say something dumb in another language and have people laugh at you. How hard it is to speak Spanish!