Mother tongue





You hear a lot of people talk about how easy it is to pick up a new language when you’re immersed in it, but that hasn’t really been my experience. I mean, I’m learning. But it has been far from easy, and it’s not something that has fallen into place without concerted effort. Without making myself go do intimidating stuff and then come home and write down the words I didn’t understand, the conjugations that would have been helpful, the difference between two words that we use one all-encompassing word for in my first language. Forcing myself to watch a show in Spanish or listen to a Spanish podcast to be immersed a little longer when I’d rather relax and give my brain a break by consuming media in English.

I suspect that my experience as a second language learner varies a lot from someone who is perhaps more extroverted or less self-conscious, or someone who new languages come very naturally to. I, on the other hand, spend a lot of time worrying about saying or doing something the wrong way and being consequently judged and that is something that has absolutely been a hindrance to my language acquisition, especially when I first got here.

This morning at preschool drop-off I finally got to meet the mother of a little girl I’ve been hearing a lot about. She’s named Matilde, one letter off from my daughter’s “Matilda,” and both girls were wearing nearly identical, glittery silver shoes. (As an aside, I have a sneaking suspicion that my Matilda has been so adamant about wearing those same silver shoes to school every day because she knew her friend would be wearing hers, as well.) I chatted with her mom a bit, and noticing my accent, she asked where I was from. Something seemed to click into place and she said, “Ohh! It makes sense now. Matilde has been telling me that she has a new friend at school, but the friend talks like a much younger kid. It’s just that she speaks mostly English.” 

If I could have seen into the future and observed that exchange before moving here, I think I might have been slightly horrified. My poor 3-year old is getting referred to as a baby by her peers and as any preschooler knows, “baby” is the insult of all insults. But having the perspective I do now, I sort of love it. It is the sweetest and most innocent thing that Matilda’s friend, who enjoys hanging out with her and accepts her as is, made a simple, straightforward observation about her language skills, without thinking of Matilda as some sort of an outsider. Just someone in her community who, for whatever reason, knows less words than she does. And, also? I am thrilled to hear that Matilda is saying anything at all in Spanish. 

One of my biggest obstacles in adjusting to life abroad was feeling a loss of independence, particularly because there was a huge imbalance in my spouse’s ability to communicate (he’s a native Spanish speaker) and my own ability to communicate (I’ve taken years and years of Spanish, even a Spanish literature course taught entirely in Spanish, but in my personal experience, studying a language and using it for daily life are two very different things.) I’m used to being able to handle just about anything on my own, and here I am, suddenly scared to try to sign up at a gym because I know I’ll have a hard time understanding the vocabulary necessary to do so. I was even scared to go to the grocery store or pick up fast food at first (and, okay, I do still get nervous sometimes because I have days where I have to ask, “Como?” after literally every single thing the cashier says.) 

When we moved into our apartment building, I confidently walked up to the doorman and said, “Hi, I’m the new resident of apartment XYZ, we’re moving in today.” I had even checked beforehand to make sure that what I planned to say was correct. He did not understand me, not one bit. He told me he’d call the people in apartment XYZ to see if I could come up and it wasn’t until one of the people helping us move in stepped in and sorted things out that I could go up to my new apartment. 

You know how you feel when someone asks you something but you mishear and then you answer a question that you weren’t asked, and then, thanks to the look on their face, it dawns on you that you misunderstood and said something wrong? Or you think someone’s talking to you, but they aren’t? Or someone asks you something but you can’t understand them or hear them very well, so you have to ask, “What?” and then you don’t understand a second time, so you start to panic about how many times you’re going to need to ask for clarification? This is basically what it feels like to be immersed in a language you’re still learning. I feel these things multiple times a day, most days. And as someone who is introverted, has experienced social anxiety in the past, and would really prefer to sound intelligent if at all possible, I’ll tell you how it feels: it’s scary and it’s embarrassing and it sucks. 

That’s not to say that people here have done anything on their part to make me feel that way. The vast majority of interactions have been with people who very patiently repeat themselves, or use hand gestures to help me understand, or slow down and repeat their question in a different way. I can count on one hand the amount of times someone was rude or impatient with me. But I honestly wish it was a requisite human experience to have to go live somewhere and learn a new language and feel what it’s like. I think it would lead to a lot more compassion, particularly on the part of people who feel the need to yell about languages other than their own being spoken in their home country, wherever that might be. But that topic is an entire blog post in itself.

At first, I dealt with my lack of language skills by avoidance. I’d wait until my husband could go with me somewhere or call someone for me. And that led to me feeling helpless and isolated and just all around terrible. I woke up crying about it one morning, and I let myself sulk about it for a little while, and then I woke up another morning and decided that I wasn’t going to waste my entire time here feeling like that. And that’s when the shift happened.

I decided that I was going to purposefully do something “scary” as often as possible. I took Matilda to get her hair cut by myself, and even though I didn’t know how to say “bangs,” I was able to ask them to please cut the front part of her hair a little shorter (and in return, the man cutting her hair told me, “Ah, las chasquillas!” and now I know how to say “bangs” in Chilean Spanish.) I signed up for a grocery delivery service even though I knew I’d have to talk to someone on the phone about substitutions. 

I started driving. I swore up and down I wouldn’t drive here because, what if I got pulled over? What if I got in an accident? What if 3847293847 possibilities occurred and I struggled to communicate with another human being to resolve something? Yeah, that didn’t last long. I was starting to meet people who lived in areas I couldn’t access by public transit, so driving was necessary. Also, if I may add, it’s really fun to drive here. I don’t know if that’s mostly the result of getting to drive a zippy little sedan after years in a minivan, but there are all kinds of circular areas and fun stretches of roads that wind through mountains and roundabouts (where, admittedly, I’ve realized that getting frustrated with people’s confusion over how roundabouts work is internationally applicable.)

I still have a bucket list of things that, embarrassingly and perhaps ridiculously, I’m nervous to try due to my unfamiliarity with the requisite vocabulary. Getting my nails done, for one. Same goes for my hair. Returning something to a store. Finding a place to ride horses here and reconnect with an old hobby. Applying for a public library card.

But that list is getting shorter, and I hope that by the time I leave, I can cross everything off. 

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