Are you fluent yet – the trials and tribulations of communicating in a different language

Many conversations I had last year with people about my planned travels to South America went something like this…

Other person: you are going to South America for a year…wow! Can you speak Spanish?

Me: No, I can’t speak much Spanish yet apart from a couple of words including essential phrases like “no entiendo” and “un poco mas lentos por favor” (I don’t understand and please speak a little slower)

Other person: well if you can’t speak the language then why are you going there? It must be really difficult…

I was never too sure how to respond to such comments except to say that one of my main reasons for choosing South America for this adventure was actually to force myself to learn a new language and the only way to actually do that is to be immersed in the language – living it, reading it, hearing, speaking and seeing it everywhere you go and in everything you do.

Today may not be the most appropriate day to write this blog as I am having one of my “I hate Spanish days/weekends”. But actually this is probably the perfect time to reflect honestly on the first 6 months of learning this new and totally different language…

As with many aspects of traveling, you have your good and bad moments in learning a new language. Moments of triumphs where you manage to communicate properly or have a half decent conversation with someone and moments of utter despair when faced with a group of people at a party or in a bar or basically any large social setting when you can hardly make out a few basic words in the conversation. The worst moments are those when it seems like all the words that you know are in your head fade into the deepest darkest hole somewhere and you feel like a toddler battling to string the simplest sentences together. In those moments of despair I usually turn into a total mute and all I can do is try and listen and grasp what ever I can…I certainly don’t contribute much to the conversation in those situations. And this is when I get a little down as the people I have begun to know here are incredibly interesting people and I would love to have really interesting and meaningful conversations with them instead of having to stick to the most pathetic of small talk subjects like “it’s very cold today”.

I know I have made a lot of progress, especially since I am learning Spanish in probably the most difficult country on the continent. Many people have told me over the last few months that Chileans don’t speak Spanish – they speak Chileno. Their version of the language includes many many Chilenismo’s – slang words that other Spanish speakers can hardly understand. They are also notorious for cutting syllables from words and not pronouncing the last sounds especially if they are ‘s’ sounds. On top of this, they speak incredibly quickly (much more so than many of their neighbours) and often in more of a mumble than a clear voice. So all of this together makes learning the language here just that little bit tougher…

But when has Ingrid ever not risen to a challenge…

In this case the challenge is often best tackled with a strong Piscola, a local drink called Pisco (somewhere between wine and grappa in terms of the strength of the alcohol produced from the grapes) and coco cola. After a couple of drinks my Spanish improves tremendously or I should rather say my inhibitions decrease dramatically and I don’t care about making mistakes, I talk any way! And most of the time people understand the main idea I am trying to communicate, which is the essential aim. So in the last few weeks there have been many moments of triumphs where I have thought that I am making great progress and I know I am…it is just not quick enough in my mind and I am extremely impatient at the moment. As with most things in life, I am my own worst critic and everyone else is incredibly supportive of my Spanish abilities…

I think the experiences I am having learning Spanish have made me a lot more conscious of how my students feel in English classes here. Although they do have the luxury of after the lesson reverting to their native tongue whereas I have to then convert from my very slow and clear teaching voice back to Spanish. In many ways I feel like I often learn as much about the Spanish language during my lessons as I teach about English. Hearing the common mistakes they make in English has given me more of an understanding of how Spanish speakers think and the way I need to think to speak their language without sounding, as they say, a bit like an Indian (i.e. talking in broken, incomplete sentences with nothing flowing).

And I think by relating my own frustrations to my students they can appreciate that learning a new language is tough. For instance, during one private lesson with Juan Pablo (one of my students who is a music event producer and brings big bands to Chile for concerts), I had a phone call in which I had to speak only in Spanish. Now speaking face to face in Spanish is difficult enough, but on the phone it is a nightmare and I absolutely hate it and avoid it as much as possible. So I battled through the phone call which probably only lasted about a minute and afterwards Juan Pablo was laughing hysterically at me. In other situations this probably would have made me a little angry, but in this case my problems with his language made him understand his own frustrations with mine. Afterwards we had a good chat about being really shy in a new language and that we may feel safe talking with our teacher etc, but in real life situations we freeze and don’t want to speak with anyone else. I tried telling him that the only way to learn a language, especially when you are not immersed in it all the time, is to get out of your comfort zone and force yourself to talk and not give a damn about how you sound. I may constantly use the incorrect masculine or feminine version of a word, but so what, at least I am talking or trying to.

So yes, I have my days when I feel like I am doing great and other days when I feel like nothing is working. I suppose I just have to keep reminding myself that it has only been about 5 months since I started and being a latin based language it is very different in grammar and structure to English. Baby steps and lots of patience is needed and more than anything to keep forcing myself to practice as often and as much as possible with many different people…

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