How I learned to stop worrying and learned to love the Spanish language

Somewhere in our collective memory, we have a story of a North American who visits ______ (Mexico, Peru, or wherever). The person, usually an attractive young woman, stands in a crowded stadium and shouts out a cheer, only to realize belatedly she yelled out a slang word for a female body part, not the cheer she thought she knew. The collective crowd of tens of thousands instantly yank their heads in her direction as her companions yank her down to her seat.

She knows the sole remedy is to return home, take the veil, and enter a cloistered community. Her life as tourist/volunteer/missionary or whatever she thought she was doing outside of English-speaking regions is over. Her life will now be devoted to knitting woolen booties for orphans in an windowless cell.

The story has endless variations, with gender, language and occasion changing. The result is always the same. Never, ever, ever will the naive English speaker attempt speaking a foreign language again.

I lived in Honduras for almost a decade. I have uttered a lifetime of embarrassing phrases in Spanish in less than 10 years. I have asked a young boy to show me his breast, rather than his chest. I once spoke that I was full of human waste, not fear. I suspect there are many, many things that I said that I haven’t been told because I have kind, merciful friends there.

Despite being overly aware of my language deficiencies in my first years in Honduras, I realized that at some point,  I was using Spanish all of my working hours. I could converse with my co-workers, bank tellers, grocery store clerks. When I got home, I often didn’t switch to English right away. Even the dog became bilingual.

Am I as good as a native? No, I am not even close. Spanish has at least fourteen verb conjugations for each verb. I  understand half of those, and speak almost half of that number, which means I exist mainly the present tense when using Spanish.

What was the key to my success, albeit modest success, in conquering a foreign language? I stopped worrying and started speaking at every opportunity. I used what little language instruction I had received, and I applied it as best I could.

Language is fraught with opportunities, both good and bad, for communication. It can unite us, divide us. It can bring information that saves or bring news of disaster upon us. We depend upon language to stave off isolation and build community.

My language lesson today for anyone reading is quite simple. Don’t worry. Embrace the experience of learning a language, whatever the results may yield. One day you will realize you have some success. Why even your dog will understand you. He will sit steadfastly when you say, “come,” in any language you choose.

This post is linked to Velvet Ashes, a forum for women serving overseas.

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18 thoughts on “How I learned to stop worrying and learned to love the Spanish language

  1. I believe women do better with languages. Also younger better than older. My experience is making an effort counts for a lot; and the more intelligent the listener, the easier it is to be understood.

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    1. Research supports your idea that youth makes for easier language learning. As far as gender, I have found that male colleagues generally fared better because they had to learn to further their vocation in non-profit or church work. Women who are married with kids often lagged behind the rest of the household because they were home and busy taking care of the English speakers.

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  2. Great advice. I get by best in Spanish when I simply let rip with my limited skill. It does not bother me that I sound like a 4-year old who has downed a bottle of tequila. When I do worst is when I am accompanied by someone well-versed in Spanish who continually corrects my scatter gun grammar. Then, I just clam up.

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    1. I am not a fan of the grammar police either. I know a fast-talking Gringa who used to obviously enjoying speaking Spanish very quickly in front of me so I could not follow the conversation. Often, she was so quick in her words that the Hondurans had trouble keeping up. Knowing the language is important, but communication can be done through acts of service as well as showing fruits of the Spirit.

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  3. Many folks, I think, who move to a foreign land are hesitant to speak the new tongue out loud for fear of sounding silly. What they fail to realize is that you do not sound silly so much as you sound cute to the natives. So, be cute, I say.

    I rarely interact with Gringos, and I speak Spanish almost exclusively. This has gone on for years now and when I do run into Gringos I have trouble switching languages. Often, I start in English and end a sentence in Spanish, and then I try to correct myself.

    Learning a new language late in life is not easy, but it’s fun. I recommend it.

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    1. I am not sure if the average campesino in Honduras thinks Gringos as cute when we speak. Language can be used to keep outsiders at bay, too. Sometimes, I think mocking Gringos using rudimentary Spanish was their way of keeping pride in the face of our money and know it all attitudes.

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  4. “I stopped worrying and started speaking at every opportunity.’ So much wisdom! And actually life lessons beyond mere language learning, eh?! Thanks so much for linking up with Velvet Ashes!

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    1. Amy, we can apply lessons from language acquisition to much of life. A lot of life is just showing up, right? Same thing with language acquisition, I think. I gotta get out of the boat at some point and take a step of faith.

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  5. Thank you for this, or should I say muchas gracias! It helps me to hear this. When I move to Mexico having a hearing disability will make learning Spanish all the more difficult (you can’t read lips when they’re speaking a foreign language) although not impossible. My goal, rather than to be fluent, is to be charming. How many people have we encountered from other countries who speak English and make mistakes – and it sounds so charming. If I can one day sound as charming speaking Spanish as some of my friends speaking English I will be quite content and proud of myself. And the gaffes make for good stories, as is evident in this post. : )

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  6. Barbara, I failed to mention that I have moderate hearing loss. I wear hearing aids, and I have done so for years. It’s not impossible but it adds another layer of complexity I think. Just like in English, I had to let others know I didn’t hear well in Spanish. I learned that drive-thru banking was a challenge in Spanish. I learned to text rather than rely on voice conversations via cell phone. It can be done.

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    1. Oh thank you for sharing this! I wear hearing aids as well – have for 20+ years. Can’t get by without them in most situations. Yes, it will be a challenge. But as you said, not impossible. I am determined and that counts for a lot! “…it adds another layer of complexity…” – well why not? I’m game. Gotta be. There are no other rules.

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  7. “Don’t worry…embrace the experience” – great advice, and then learning language can be fun and beautiful – love it that Barbara said her goal was not to be fluent, but to be charming….:-) I’ll have to remember that! Language isn’t for perfection but for COMMUNICATING – if we’re communicating, it’s okay that it’s not perfect.

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  8. It’s very odd that when it comes to learning new languages, a lot of people have very non-supportive beliefs. I sound silly. I can’t do this. I’m too old. I’m bad at grammar, and blah, blah, blah. And it still surprises me that there are so many Americans and Canadians who’ve lived in Mexico for years and still can only barely scrape by in Spanish. But Felipe has proven it can be done, having learned Spanish in his 60’s, and I can testify that he speaks Spanish very fluently.

    I think you’re right; the trick is to just dive in and do it.

    Saludos,

    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where we are under yet one more “snow emergency.” I can’t wait for spring.

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    1. I was surprised by the number of US women living in or near the capital of Tegucigalpa who spoke poor Spanish. They built their lives around their families and the small number of expat friends they knew. The irony was many had newsletters trumpeting their involvement with the locals. Maybe their husbands did the heavy lifting of communication. I felt like if I were going to be in a foreign country then I wasn’t going to surround myself with English speakers all of the time. If I wanted to speak English all day, such as teaching English abroad or getting heavily involved in US expat social activities, then I would be happier in the US doing those things. One of the key things I didn’t mention is that one cannot isolate oneself when abroad.

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