The comical ridiculousness of learning a new language

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When I lived in Barcelona, most people spoke better English than I did. No joke, Most cosmopolitan cities in the world boast a plethora of languages, with the Queen’s native tongue being fairly high on the list, but this was ridiculous.

I spoke English all day, every day, and despite attempts when out and about, plus the advantage of a Spanish-speaking boyfriend and several Spanish-speaking friends, we all kind of got stuck in English. The hostel we worked at took mostly guests from North America, Australia or the UK, and those who weren’t from those particular reasons still spoke excellent English. My colleagues were a mixture of Europe, the US and South America (with Spain, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay represented respectively), but even for them it made more sense to continue in English. Locals, sensing my trepidation when I tried to order groceries, kindly switched to English (partly because they would have had to wait an additional twenty minutes for me to respond to them).

It was a nice introduction to my new country of residence, in a way, however now I’m living in a much smaller city, I’m wishing we’d all made a bit more effort as I’m getting to grips with the difficulty and general hilarity of learning a new language.

Salamanca has many English speakers – students from overseas, young people, a few expats here and there, however it’s not uncommon to come across someone in their twenties or thirties who doesn’t speak English. Even those who do will continue in Spanish in shops and restaurants, and why shouldn’t they? This is Spain after all. I’m happy that my new city is pushing me to learn Spanish, but it’s bloody hard work.

This is the first time I’ve really worked to learn another language. Most of my English friends are monolingual – unless we had a strong aptitude for a language or had family to keep up with, we were never encouraged to continue much past GCSE. I have a decent level of French but I’m nowhere near fluent, and although I have a handful of useful phrases in German and Italian, I can’t claim proficiency in either of those language (apologies here to my Italian auntie). The older you are, the harder it is, not just because of the human brain’s capacity to retain information, but also because of the additional shame that comes with messing up. And boy do I mess up. My understanding of Spanish is decent and I can write reasonably well (albeit with some dictionary-based guesswork). My spoken Spanish, however, is still comically slow and full of errors.

Here’s a typical conversation in my house (translated into English to show you how difficult this language lark is):

My flatmate: ‘What’s for dinner? Smells great!’
Me: ‘Dicks (pollas). Um no, wait, I mean chicken (pollo)’
My flatmate: *dissolves into laughter for the next ten minutes*

Here’s another typical conversation:

Friend: ‘We were just saying that normally, A has a beard, but he’s gotten rid of it!’
Me: ‘Ah that’s a shame. I am beard. My dad is a beard. My boyfriend is a beard’.
Friends: *tumbleweed*
Me: ‘I mean, I like beards’.

See what I mean? As a child, I would have found the above hilarious. As an adult, I still do, although I feel a huge sense of shame and embarrassment at not yet being able to form sentences. I feel bad for new acquaintances who have to speak to me extremely slowly, as if I’m recovering from a severe concussion.

I sometimes worry I’ll never get it right. I want more than anything to speak Spanish fluently, to be able to think and dream in Spanish, to speak to my boyfriend’s family in their native language. I don’t want to be the one everyone has to translate for, the one everyone has a little bit less respect for because they didn’t make the effort. It’s sheer determination right now that is spurring me to keep going, to keep trying. I will, for comical effect, be making a documentation of all my errors, because when I get really good I can look back on them and laugh. A lot.

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