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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Ay-yo, No Comprendo...Adventures in Español

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 míoThank 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!

While that in itself was grand, sentences began to take on more importance as it looked like a life with my husband was becoming more of a reality. With a mother-in-law that did not speak English, it became quickly apparent that como esta usted just wasn't going to cut it. I wanted to be able to talk with her, to hear her stories, to learn from her experiences.

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 worse more complicated, is that in order to be successful, one must truly live in the language. When we're in Spain, it gets a bit easier, because except for my husband, everyone speaks Spanish all the time, and my older relatives speak the regional dialect, Gallego, which is another story altogether.

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.


  1. Keep at it! You'll get there! I am no where NEAR fluent, but if stranded somewhere I could probably get help using my terrible verbs and a lot of exaggerated hand gestures. The verbs are SO HARD!

    I found you today via the NE Bloggers FB group. And I'm glad I did !

    1. Hi NJ! Thank you so much for stopping by and for your encouragement. Those verbs are awful. I just downloaded the app, Duolingo, so hopefully, that will also help. Thank God for patient relatives. :-) I am so glad you found me. Please come back and visit again soon. :-)

  2. learning a new language is so hard! hang in there! i love your post and your sense of humor about it.

    1. Hi Taylor, thank you so much. :-) It's a process and I have to trust that. I definitely do better when I'm immersed but living and thinking in an English speaking world and transitioning back to a Spanish speaking mother-in-law gets tricky. Thank you so much for stopping by and for your encouragement. Please visit again soon.

  3. Learning a second language is very difficult! I took 3 years of Spanish in Jr. High and can't remember a whole lot of it... I'm learning French now, and there are so many weird rules and grammar things that make me crazy!

    1. Hi Angie! Good luck with your French. I just downloaded the Duolingo app for my own style of "drill and kill" so we'll see how that goes. :-) Thank you so much for stopping by. Please visit again soon. :-)

  4. I started learning Spanish when I decided to marry my husband too--and it is no easy language. I'm at the point where I can understand a LOT...but I can't necessarily think and formulate grammatical sentences fast enough to insert them into conversation, so I believe his family thinks I am quiet. When we visit them, it is like a Spanish immersion experience, as all conversations are in Spanish--my mind feels like it's constantly working overtime to understand.
    And then sometimes word order or tense trips me up and I get something completely backward. Oh well, it's a process!

    1. Rachel, you understand completely...I have a strikingly similar experience. I understand far much more than I can say. And interestingly, I read and write fairly well. The immersion works well for me, but whenever I interact back into the English speaking world...even thinking, sometimes, I often go backwards. You're definitely is a process. Thanks so much for stopping by. Cheers!

  5. Kelly- what an absorbing and interesting Post. I admire your efforts tremendously, a beautiful effort, I'm sure appreciated by all while at the same time you are all the better for it. Thanks for sharing. Keep striving...

  6. Thanks for linking up to this month's Share the Love Blog hop over at

    Natasha @ Serenity You

  7. Hi! Stopping by via Let's Get Social Sunday! Following and would love if you followed back!

  8. I have always wanted to learn Italian but it is just not sinking in. I think it is really great that you are picking Spanish up little by little and getting better.

  9. My boyfriend's grandma came from Italy for the American Dream back in the 60's, and until the day she died didn't know any english. It was a blast learning from her and trying to figure out what each other was trying to say! Haha.
    I love that "I throw my spanish in the air sometimes", perfect!


  10. I never took a language in high school. When I went to college, I was told I needed to take four semesters of one. So, being I venture to Montreal enough -- especially back then -- I chose French. For four semesters, I struggled.

    There was one night where, apparently, I was quite fluent in French. But that's a story for another time.

    But I struggled with learning. The conjugations and everything else was just too much. I still would love to be able to speak it, so I've looked at a couple of the newer-style courses. I'll see.

    Keep making gains though. It'll be worth it in the end, I imagine!

  11. I have to tell you, this 'child-like conversation' level you mention is where I hope to get. And this post is such a blessing to have found through today's post, thanks for this topic (I hope to find more!)

    1. Keep at it, Farin. It is so worth the effort. I get frustrated too...but in the end, I'll be better for so will you. :-)