Speak like a local or look like an idiot or: How I learned to stop worrying and love Spanish

One of the biggest frustrations for me since moving to Mexico has been, unsurprisingly, the language barrier. Not from a practical side, I have to say. Despite not studying Spanish at school, the occasional holiday to Spain, coupled with the similarities it has with my residual french, and the millennial’s weapon of choice in being a shiftless citizen of the world, Duolinguo have all combined to drag my practical Spanish up to a serviceable level. I am fully capable of acquiring beer and sustenance in a restaurant, finding my way around the metro system, navigating payment in the supermarket and so on. With a little Spanglish thrown in, I’ve even been able to complain over the phone about the bike hire station not working properly (a personal highlight, although I did end up owing them 12 pesos, so perhaps this was not as successful as I had thought…).

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No, the frustration comes not from being unable to function on a basic level, but from being unable to express myself in any way beyond the basic. I joke to Myriam’s parents that the reason we don’t speak more Spanish is because I am boring in Spanish and I don’t want her to leave me (I prepare for my conversations with them with a zeal and dedication that makes my efforts on my Spanish homework seem weak and listless), but this has a significant dash of the truth. I can put words together in a sentence, sometimes even in the correct order and tense, but there is no personality, no spark, no humour. Given that I am quite a fan of words, and usually take a reasonable amount of care and time with mine (and puns, never forget), this is a frustration. More than a frustration, truthfully, as it leaves me with a choice (as I initially saw it) between trying, and coming across as slow, dull, awkward, or just keeping schtum most of the time, silent and mysterious (or more probably silent and awkward, but still).

Myriam’s friends have been lovely, putting up with both my silences and my stilted attempts at speaking, talking slowly or in English for my benefit, but even this is frustrating. Irrational as it might be, I don’t want to always be ‘the one we need to take care of’.

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As time has gone on, I’ve (slowly) started to forget about how I might sound, or whether I make mistakes or not, and just have a go. At just speaking, at first, but also at attempting to inject some personality into another language. The key, initially, was a couple of beers – chatting nonsense after sufficient social lubrication seems to be fairly standard across linguistic barriers – but this has (unsurprisingly) translated into just being a bit more confident, which seems to make all the difference. Not just that being more confident means you are more likely to try (and be happy to fail), but that being confident actually improves one’s ability – so much vocabulary, and understanding lies just underneath the surface, and just having a go brings it forth in a way that waiting until an opportunity to use phrases you feel comfortable with does not.

For years I’ve argued with more pedantic friends about the essence of the English language being about understanding, how malleable it is, and how at the end of the day as long as everyone is understood, and our conversational contract is fulfilled, then which form of who/whom, fewer/less etc is really rather unimportant. Why should this essence of understandability not be applicable to another language? Having a stab at mixing indirect objects with the imperfect, getting it slightly wrong but ending up with everyone getting to the correct conclusion (laughing with me not at me) is far more satisfying than smiling, nodding, and ordering another beer…

This is not to say that the frustration has disappeared – in a deeply spoilt and privileged way it is extremely annoying to come up against something that will remain problematic for some time, regardless how much hard work you put into it – but I hope that my clumsy attempts at making myself understood on a slightly deeper level than ‘yes, I also like that. Where is the library? The pen of my aunt is smaller than the garden of my uncle’ are worthwhile and effective.

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The beer still helps though.

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