Second language learning is a funny thing. There is little else that can make you feel like a badass and then a buffoon in a New York minute.
When you're on, you're on. But when you're not...¡Ay Dios mío! Thank God for hand gestures...which, by the way, I have found, usually freak out those who do not talk with their hands.
I am a second language learner. I have been trying to learn Spanish now, mas o menos, for a while. I guess you could say that I am a textbook learner. I went through a silent period, where I took everything in, trying to make sense of what I heard...even though it sounded like one veeeerrrryyy long word. And then I began to experiment with vocabulary, identifying words like a toddler, using association, rather than translation.
As a visual learner, I quickly learned that I could remember vocabulary if I could see what the word looked like and how it was spelled. I began soaking up vocabulary like it was my job. I put post-its on everything, and soon, I could identify scores of nouns. I also practiced pleasantries, suitable enough to score me a café con leche or maybe even sangria and tapas in un bar madrileño. Winning!
No worries...I am a visual learner. Seeing the words kept me on top of my game. I was confident, as someone strong in my first language, that I would be strong in a second language.
And then I had to conjugate verbs.
If I could live in the infinitive case forever, indeed, I would be winning again. But, alas, it could not be. I could avoid it, but the past and future tense would forever haunt me with Dickens' Scrooge-like torment.
We practiced at home. I went to Spanish school. I studiously worked through my Spanish textbook and workbook, wearing out pencil erasers as I battled verb tenses and direct and indirect objects. I began to speak in short sentences, but became frustrated with the level of "baby talk" that I could generate on my own. I knew what I wanted to say, but I didn't have the words to express myself.
And what made matters
When you think in a language, you just do better. But working, living and thinking in an English world wreak havoc on my ability to flip the switch between language. At the strangest times, I would look at English speakers and think Spanish, and then think English when I should be using Spanish. And then there's my Spanglish....
Verbos, I would lament to my mother-in-law. Those darned verbs were doing me in. For as much progress as I was making, it seemed like I was stuck in neutral. And at times, it felt like I was beginning to roll backwards down Mount Español.
In Spain and desperate to communicate with my new family and friends, I struggled to pick out words familiar to me and make sense of what people were saying and asking. I was triple processing everything, deciphering first what they were saying, then the answer, and finally, how I would answer. By then, the conversation had moved on. Not winning.
In exhaustion and a bit of self preservation, my brain shut down when it hit the saturation point and Charlie Brown's teacher took up residence in my brain like a long lost friend, sheltering me from the frustration of my inability to communicate.
God blessed me with a husband who has the patience of a saint and the ability to talk me off the ledge when my emotions ran the gamut, from frustration to desperation. Lovingly and compassionately he reassured me that I was making progress...that it would take time. And it does. Experts say that it could take 7-10 years for an adult to become fully fluent in a second language.
But patience is in short supply when you are immersed in a language you don't fully understand. It becomes a matter of survival, not convenience.
He was right. I have made great gains. I can carry on a basic conversation in Spanish and I think I would be okay if I got stranded at the market...but don't tell him that.
I have learned that, while eventually I may see a degree of fluency comparable to some native speakers, there are some things I simply may never understand.
And that's okay. Because when your heart's in it, your brain will follow. And that's winning.
How about you? Inspire me with your efforts to try something outside your comfort zone.