A short accounting of ways in which I failed at Spanish this week:
- I couldn’t figure out how to tell my friend *not* to eat lead paint (I had to outsource that key piece of translation).
- My speaking ability seems inversely proportional to my hunger (i.e the more I need food, the worse I speak) and I’m *always* hungry.
- I forgot how to say “as long as” today so I ended up telling him that he had to renew his registration 3 months early.
- I cannot, for the life of me, switch between tu and Ud with anything approaching competence.
- I tried to explain the meaning of “collateral” — because I couldn’t remember the word — and we ended up with a conversation about pawn shops.
- Last Friday, I couldn’t speak Spanish at all. Basic phrases and conjugation were completely beyond me. By the end of the day I was all-but mute, and could only say “lo siento no puedo” over and over again.
- For every person who looks at me as I speak, my rate of speaking halves instantaneously.
- I ran over a median and kind of off the road while trying to speak Spanish last week. (Ok admittedly, that’s probably due to being a bad driver and *not* a bad Spanish-speaker but still.)
Probably the thing that had me most upset this week –and talking out loud to myself (in English) out of frustration — was a brief conversation today about whether I could/should continue to be the group leader and manage Spanish and everything that comes with being in a Master’s program and I couldn’t say respond in Spanish because see number 7. I just wanted to yell “I’M NOT STUPID, OK?” (I think I ended up saying, I don’t care, choose someone else. but that’s up for debate).
Because a permanent feeling of “stupid” is what speaking another language feels like. Like my brain is on a permanent delay and my laugh track is stuck 10 seconds behind everyone else’s joke. Like I’m never going to figure out how to incorporate the rolling “r” into words properly. Like “yo soy” is just an approximation of “I am” because it never seems to feel the same. Because speaking Spanish feels like a thing that I am doing and not part of who I am.
Who I *am* doesn’t come through in Spanish. I’m not sarcastic, or funny or remotely brilliant. All the things that make me *me* don’t seem to exist in Spanish. I’m not anything like myself. I’m actually kind of bland –a girl who does a lot of smiling and asking “how are you“. Spanish is an ill-fitting mask that I keep plastering onto my face every morning, hoping that it will fit. And each morning it lands on the floor at my feet.
Perhaps that sounds depressing and hopeless to you. But take heart, because what it actually means is that you’re on the right track. Feeling “stupid” or not quite good at something is a phase that every single person goes through while learning something new, be it salsa dancing or basketball. Being uncomfortable and not getting it right lasts for an awfully long time for anything that is worth doing. And I only know this because I’ve been here before. The key is to stick it out during this seemingly interminable “sucking at life” phase.
So, how do you stick-it-out?
- Keep doing something that you’re good at while you learn. I write and post more on FB each day because I’m good at it and I enjoy it. And writing reminds me that I am a) not stupid and b) have a tangible skill (writing) that I developed from years of “feeling stupid” practicing. Writing reminds me of the various phases of the process and that they don’t last forever.
- Recognize how far you’ve come. One year ago I couldn’t speak in whole sentences in Spanish and well, look at me now. Every one who speaks Spanish fluently learned it the same way that I learned English — one word at a time and one day at at time.
- Don’t catalog your failures. I did it here to make a point about the sucky phase, but it’s not necessary. Guess what? You’re new at this, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes (some embarrassing ones too), and for every failure that you can list, there is probably a corresponding thing that you have learned. Focus on that instead.
- There is no Endgame. Though I think it is more than possible to obtain mastery in a language (or any skill) — and also what I’d like to achieve with Spanish– I don’t think that “conquering” is the end state. Learning a skillset isn’t like climbing a mountain. You don’t summit and then check it off of your bucket list. If anything,learning a language (or any skill) is a mountain with no peak, a climb with no end. And the journey (and loveliness) lies in the climb itself and not at at peak.
So tomorrow, by God’s grace I will wake up and I will waddle my way through Spanish for another day.