I used to be so proud of my oh-so-subtle jokes slipped into fast-talking conversations. I used to delight in witticisms and even the occasional word pun. But when I was learning Spanish with no fellow English-speakers in sight, I had to give up my allegedly “sophisticated” sense of humor if I wanted to be able to tell a joke.
I had to become expert at sound effects and physical comedy. And I’m funnier because I learned another language. Charlie Chaplin is timeless for a reason.
When I was finally immersed in the language I had been trying to learn stateside for years, I learned extremely quickly. I picked up idioms right and left and learned correct intonation faster than I ever would have thought possible. But there were some crucial words and grammar structures that I failed to learn properly along the way.
Suddenly people were presuming that I was much more fluent than I really was. Many native Spanish speakers would start speaking to me in rapid, ungenerous, slang-y Spanish after the briefest exchange in which I had sounded like a capable conversant.
As much as I was desperate to be as fluent as they believed me to be, I often had to swallow my pride and ask a stupid question. I had missed some key word or phrase — and now, in order to truly understand what was being said and participate in the conversation, I had to make my conversation partner back up and define a simple verb construction for me.
As a feminine-looking person of rather slight stature, at some point I learned to express myself with as many polysylabic words as possible. For a long time, I thought part of my duty as a feminist was to prove myself in male-dominant conversations by pretending that I was amongst the most intelligent and widely-read people in the room.
But when I was learning a language, I realized that anyone who I want to talk to is already ready to listen to me — whether I use big words or no. Trying to sound like I swallowed a lexicon was not only impossible when I was learning to speak Spanish, but it was also counter-productive.
Instead of worrying about whether I sounded like a genius, I had to make sure that I was making myself understood. And the generosity of all of the native speakers who put up with my poor grammar and clunky phrasing showed me that I don’t have to prove myself before someone is willing to have a conversation with me.
I’ve always been a voracious reader and I used to grow obsessed with finding exactly the “right” word — even in the middle of a conversation. I’d snap my fingers and say “what is that word…it starts with a v…”
But I didn’t have any idea how to say the word ‘voracious’ in Spanish. I had to learn that when I am in the middle of a stimulating conversation in a language that is not my first, I’ve got to just let it go. I could get there — I could play two minutes of ‘name that latin-based word’ and spend time describing the word I want, or I could just find another word and move on. By the time I’ve learned the word for ‘voracious,’ I will have missed out on an opportunity for real conversation.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a word-nerd. I love etymology and learning the history of a collocation, but when my goal is to speak to someone and understand what it is they want to tell me — I’m going to save the unnecessarily long vocab words for scrabble.
I used to be the kind of person who would cringe when I heard someone say, “My friend and me went to the store…”
But after becoming paralyzed while wondering “Is it more colloquial to say ‘me lo diga’ or just ‘digame’ in this situation?” — I learned that the devil’s in the details. I had to stop worrying about the little things.
Instead, now I just want to know: “What happened to you and your friend at the store?”
If I’m traveling to learn a language, depending on the kindness of native speakers, I’m in no position to turn down some conversation practice when it’s offered. If the man offering the practice opened that conversation by offering me a drink? Well, I learned a new diminutive, at least.
While I try to make my intentions as clear as I would in any other language, I’ve stopped outright discouraging advances from strangers and suitors — no matter how strange. If the crazy bag lady wants to tell me about the flock of birds she saw, I’m flattered and, more so than in my own country, I’m all ears. I really have no where else to be. I know I’m a better listener for it.
It’s a common problem: accidentally getting lost in expat-nation everywhere you go. Soon you realize as an English speaker that you’re really just hanging out in hostels and talking to Western Europeans, Americans, and Aussies.
While polyglot-Europeans are a fun bunch and I love the culture that crops up wherever there are travelers, I do feel that I may be a more adventurous traveler when I’m learning a language. When I hear loudly spoken English by the campfire, I head the opposite direction. My aversion to the people most similar to me leads me to learn all kinds of new things. Often, I end up striking up a philisophical conversation with someone who I have very little in common with — other than some imperfect Spanish phrases and the will to communicate.