Realizing that the core of my Spanish – una cerveza, por favor – was decidedly not going to help me figure out where to catch the bus was a desperate moment. Not to mention the subsequent shame when I bashfully resorted to holding up my phone with the question to the window at the information desk, full-screen with an obnoxious blue background on Google Translate to announce my incompetence. All the while shrinking with the mild paranoia that everyone thinks I’m one of those pretentious tourists that believes everyone ought to speak English. Morever, confused about how I would have managed a decade ago in the pre-cell travel era.
One week in Chile filled with improvised sign language, smiling stupidly and dishonourable uses of Google Translate, and I registered for a week-long intensive Spanish class. There is no way I would survive three months in Chile with only the ability to order a beer in the local language.
I went whole hog with my Spanish introduction. One week at a language school combined with home-stay. Okay… You’re right. One week isn’t really “whole hog” but that’s all the time I had before I start work in Santiago so I made the most of it.
My host family and I got off to a rough start. I showed up to the wrong address, ringing the doorbell multiple times while doing the awkward pee-dance after five hours on the bus from Pichilemu. Thankfully, no one was home at the first address I tried because there is no way I could have successfully explained in Spanish why I was barging into their home desperate for a bathroom.
I survived that first dinner by strategically shoving cannelloni into my mouth anytime it looked like someone might ask me a question. Mercifully, another student from the Spanish school was also living there and could play translator. Even with her help, nothing can negate the undoubtable awkwardness that accompanies participating in a family dinner but not understanding what is being said.
After a week in the classroom, where the teachers talk at a snail’s pace, I felt pretty chuffed about how much I could understand. Thank you Madame DeJong and your super strict highschool French class that served as my Spanish foundation! But my fumbling attempts to string a simple sentence together during dinner with my host family, left me I feeling incapable and helpless. Not a surprise that it’s hard because I have about 16 verbs that I can barely use in present tense and only five days’ worth of vocabulary mostly consisting of classroom objects… and there’s only a really slim chance we’re talking about blackboards. It the equivalent of playing Scrabble with a J, G, R, F, K, L, L in your hand. Learning a language is great destroyer of egos.
Add another couple of weeks of practice and it’s still a humbling challenge. Now, even when I can follow the fast-moving conversation over dinner, I can rarely contribute to the conversation. It takes me at least a minute to figure out if I know the vocabulary to express what I wish to say and then another two minutes to try and conjugate the verb correctly. By that point, the conversation has moved on so I just gently nod and try to pick up the conversation thread again.
I love words. Choosing them. Making sure they fully express my intention. I’m that word-Nazi that will correct when you use jealous but you really mean envious. (Yes, there is a difference). There’s a special feeling on my tongue as I find just the right word. Every language has a unique rhythm and flow, a way that individual words come together to paint a larger picture.
If you’ve met me, you know rather I’m talkative – tending toward verbal diarrhoea. Thus, being unable to communicate is paralyzing. Without words to express myself, I become a cardboard cut-out of myself, completely devoid of personality missing the characteristic sarcasm. But my charade game will improve ten-fold while I’m here. Watch out!
Although learning a new language is painfully slow – memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules and attempting to conjugate verbs in your head without screwing your face up into a wince – when you are out in the world and make effort to say even just one word in the local language, it’s all worth it. It shows your open-mindedness, respect for the local culture and willingness to put yourself out on a limb to learn.
Now settled into Santiago, my language journey continues. I can read most signs, grocery shop with confidence, roll my R’s 26% percent of the time and remember to pronounce ella like eh-yah instead of el-la (the French way) even less often. I’m the model student. I watch the Spanish equivalent of Good Morning America, practice verb conjugation with verb flash cards and attempt pathetic small talk with my Uber drivers on the way to meetings with my boss. Every step of the way, I have get over my fear of making mistakes and the mild disgust that I have the linguist abilities of pre-schooler when there is so much more I want say.
But it’s progress and that needs to be celebrated. I’ve been studying for three weeks now, and according to my Spanish teacher, my tongue wrestles with some combined version of Spanish + French… would we call that Spançais? Freñol?
Nice to meet you...
I'm Andi (hence the blog name). I'm a travel aficionado, passionate eater, tireless explorer of internet rabbit-holes, and amateur thinker. Join me as I give it all up (ok, that's a bit of an exaggeration) and go around the world on a mid-career "soul sabbatical" & year-of-learning to figure out what to be NEXT when I grow up. Won’t you grab a cup of chai and stay a while?
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