There is a pharmacist on my block, who really tests my Spanish. She looks like a stern grandmother, small and petite with a severe bob. She has those gold-framed reading glasses with the granny cords (picture clear?). And she does not understand my Spanish. Even if I’ve conversed, debated and laughed in Chilean Spanish at a BBQ the night before, there is Señora Cruz Verde, just waiting to cut my confidence down. No matter how clearly I speak, she squints her face like she just bit into a lemon: ‘Queeeee? No, no, no entiendo.’
Learning a language as an adult is humbling, because you know that you are a smart, independent being, but to the outside world you feel like you sound….well, like an idiot. Your verbs are wrong, your thoughts simple, your conversation topics limited. You want to shout to the world: I have so much more to say than, ‘I like!’
I had a realization in Chile. For most of my life, I’ve been very privileged to grow up in a country that spoke my first language. I was blind to the bravery it took for so many English learners to simply speak, knowing someone may shake their head and say: ‘WHAT?’ The word, ‘WHAT?’ when you are trying your best to communicate in a foreign language can be jarring. Hearing it over and over again, makes you want to go quiet.
Before Chile, I worked as an AmeriCorps soccer/writing coach at a bilingual school in Washington D.C. When the kids came running out onto the soccer field everyday, it was a cluster-f$% of Spanglish. Spanish from all over Central America and the Caribbean collided with English. I noticed students had different reactions to Spanish. Some students rejected it or didn’t even understand it. Others proudly shouted it up and down the soccer field, used it to plan secret shanningans behind teachers’ backs (like mine). And some, recently immigrated, spoke an uncomfortable mix of both, not knowing which one was ‘right.’
I once made the mistake of trying to connect with the kids I coached, by speaking in my rusty study abroad/university Spanish. I thought I was very cool, when I asked the kids who they liked better, Ronaldo or Messi. Their response: ‘MISS Rachel, why are you speaking Spanish to ME? Don’t speak Spanish to me!’ Other kids starting laughing or looked uncomfortable.
This moment stuck with me for a long time. It would be awhile before I finally got it. And that was in Chile. Memorable Language Shame Moment Numero 3: I was buying a speaker at an electronic store in Santiago. At this point, I’d been in Chile for over a year. I’d put a lot of work into learning Chilean Spanish, and finally felt confident. As I began to explain to the salesman what kind of speaker I wanted, he interrupted-‘Better in English?’ I continued in Spanish, but he interrupted again, ‘I speak English-maybe easier.‘ At the cash register, he hovered over the cashier, translating everything she said to me, even though I understood it all, ‘She said, debit or credit?’ As he continued, ‘She said, slide your card,’ I silently fumed. I left the store feeling angry, replaying the situation in my head, and thought, I was speaking clearly, right?!
Maybe the salesperson was really excited to finally use his English. Just like five plus years ago, I’d been really excited to show off my Spanish to my students. But when you are learning a new language and finally gaining confidence, it can be disheartening to hear someone say, ‘Oh, let me switch into your first language.’ Because what you, the language learner, may hear is: My English/Spanish wasn’t good enough.
Even though, I grew up with Spanish all around me in the D.C. area, I rarely spoke it. It’s because the U.S., while incredibly diverse, is in so many ways very segregated. While Spanish was close to my ears in restaurants, in schools and on the metro, I stayed in my English language bubble. And when I tried to cross those divides, by forcing a connection through Spanish in D.C., it sometimes came across as the breaking of an unspoken rule, unasked help or an intrusion.
After living in Chile, I understand now, why my attempts at Spanish-connection weren’t always met with friendliness. In Chile, nothing gets under my skin more than when someone asks me immediately, ‘Do you peak English?’ When you move abroad, you put a lot of work into fitting in. So, when your Uber driver or someone you just met asks, if you speak English, it makes you feel like an outsider. Yes, I have blonde hair and I wear fugly Birkenstocks that no Chilean woman would be caught dead in, but, hey. Give me a chance.
As we get ready to return to the U.S., I keep thinking about how I will use Spanish at home. In the U.S., speaking Spanish is not the same as speaking it here in Chile. One. There are many, many variants of Spanish in the U.S. Chilean Spanish could be as good as Greek to a Dominican, Mexican or Honduran. Two. Not all Latinos in the U.S. speak Spanish. Don’t assume by someone’s last name, accent or appearance that they speak Spanish/are open to speaking Spanish with you. Because I’ve made that mistake, and I ate a big slice of humble pie (‘Como estas?!? ‘I…don’t…speak Spanish, so ya.’ ‘Oh…sorry.’)
Now that I’ve gone through the boot camp of learning a language, I’ve realized how tough it can be to put yourself out there and be misunderstood. Even laughed at. But I’ve also learned how empowering it can be to learn a new language. And how dis-empowering it can be, when someone keeps pushing you back to your first language, when you’re finally learning. So, this is my conclusion, when it comes to speaking Spanish in the U.S. I will speak Spanish in the U.S. when invited. Just like I’d wait for a new friend to invite me into their home, I’ll wait for someone’s cue to speak their first language with them. Because in Chile, I’ve learned I liked having the choice to try first.