Apart from moving far from family, friends and traditional opportunities to work, a challenge of moving abroad is learning the language and local customs…but it’s also one of the fun parts too if the stress doesn’t tweak us out. But, how many times have we all heard, ‘You’re moving there! oh you will just pick it up in 6 months, no problem!’ Yeah, I got that nugget of encouragement (torture) a lot…A LOT from people before & after we moved here.
Before I go into why this challenge is such a spectacular lesson (like all life we must think of the shitty times as such or else we lose all motivation for trying the impossible). I can state some very valid reasons (excuses) why I have struggled…
First, there are a lot of ex-pats here from all over, Columbia, Venezuela, Peru, Spain, Mexico, UK, USA, ect… Lots of people speak traditional forms of Latin American or Castilian Spanish…Chilean’s speak a slightly different version that drops certain sounds, uses lots of idioms and blends words differently than those traditionalists. So personally, when google translate says just one version of ‘Spanish’ – that is total crap…there are millions. Don’t get me wrong google translate is one of my best friends here to help me through some awkward requests, but once I said -I had a hole in my robe- and after some bizarre looks, it turns out I may have asked for sexual favors…I was at a sauna spa place but even so…that’s totally not what I meant. Here are some other good Chilean expressions in-case you are interested… https://matadornetwork.com/notebook/21-funniest-expressions-chilean-spanish-use/?single=1
Second, I kind of live in an expat, educated, lots of folks speak english bubble (yes despite it being a conscience choice, some days it’s more apparent than others) and everyone who knows I am a USA native wants to practice their (much better) english. It is hard to convince them to let me speak in my broken Spanish and have them wait through the awkward 2 minute silent lags as I translate in my mind then respond to their simple questions, like if I want coffee or tea.
Third, when speaking in another language, especially one filled with colloquialisms, I tread very lightly in the sarcasm department and find that my personality turns towards dulls-ville. I never really thought about it before becoming immersed in it, but its really hard to be witty or engaging when you barely know a kindergarteners vocabulary. I thrive on sarcasm (in case you haven’t noticed) so I find speaking Spanish all day rather stifling, so I naturally fall back into English when chatting with friends. If we don’t have our personality we have nothing.
So those excuses (I mean valid reasons) aside, yes, it’s been 9 months and I am still stuck on level 12 of Duolingo and mix up my adjectives and uses everywhere. I should clarify that I can sort of get by, definitely not fluent though by any stretch. I still have no idea what the radio is talking about, and I catch maybe 50% of a conversation but couldn’t say if those speaking are for or against whatever they are talking about. As if knowing just what a few random nouns in a sentence actually tells you the meaning…
For example) Lizard, house, to drink…. A sentence could be… there was a lizard in the house, a the lizard drinking out of the toilet in the house, or maybe I drank too much and am now hallucinating lizards in the house? All a mixed up challenge. Vocabulary check, context? not even close.
I do feel confident to find a bathroom, or order off a menu or ask for assistance in a life or death situation, but not so much in the parent whatsapp chats for my kids classrooms. Unfortunately I feel like I am being judged for not volunteering more in the classroom but it takes me an extra day to translate through the sayings and (rather excessive) use of emojis in the text chains. By the time I figure out that 20 texts are really just looking for someone to bring in cups to the next event, others have raised their hands first. One time I saw a text and knew it was asking a question for help but couldn’t quite figure out what specifically was needed. Out of a desperate (self-imposed) judgmental panic I just responded that ‘I had it covered’. Unfortunately, I then realized that I had signed up as a driver and chaperone to an all morning garden shop tour for the 4 year old’s class.
What is the definition of fluent anyway I wonder? I think the definition much more broad than what I originally thought. As a native speaker of one language I guess I always assumed being fluent was having the same understanding in another language. I’m not sure that is the case now. I think following conversations in context is a better definition than understanding every single word and having perfect grammar. But at least in my experience, I’ve never been able to get others to admit that. It’s interesting how no one likes to admit they don’t know something and everyone has the same reaction to just nod and stumble through. It’s just like asking a clarifying question in the same language…why do we hate to admit we don’t know something? I realized in chatting with some friends in english that they were only getting some of what I was saying but they too had a fear to speak up too. I now try really hard to use clear context and less idioms myself when speaking to a non-native group. If only we were all more honest maybe it’d make it easier for everyone to learn a different language.
Despite this, learning another language is something that just takes me more time than others and that is ok. Hopefully over the 2-3 years I will work on it more consistently (yeah, I’m not good at that), build up the courage to practice more daily and find my version of fluent groove. I am now practicing more in front of the kids, which helps, just so they can see that i’m trying. They often correct me as they are more fluent (in all definitions of the word) than me. I also like that they see me make mistakes because they may try more knowing some communication still happens even if it’s not perfect. Heck, it’s hard enough to have clear communication in the same language!