I think most of us who have ever tried it can attest that learning to speak a foreign language well is no easy task. Even just making mistakes in front of our peers in school is pretty embarrassing for most language learners, let alone us few brave (crazy?) souls who have moved to a foreign country and look foolish speaking another language every single day of our lives.
So innocent, if only I'd known what was in store for me...
Of course, it gets easier with time and a great deal of practice, but unfortunately foreign language learning is a lifelong process. Even after years of practice, when you think you know what you're doing, little things can surprise you. You still make mistakes. Silly ones, yes. Things that you thought you should have down by now. Things that will forever give you away as a non-native speaker.
Even more annoyingly, there are certain moments when speaking a foreign language is SO MUCH HARDER than it is at others. It's these moments when you feel like everything you've learned has been a waste, when you're completely lost for words. The times you trip up seem to always be at the EXACT moment when you need to sound your best.
What I've learned is that strong emotions and making sense in a foreign language do not mix.
I've had a LOT of these uncomfortable instances, some worse than others. To give you an example of the types of moments that make my ability to speak a foreign language go right out the window, here is my list of the top 10 moments when speaking a foreign language felt utterly impossible.
1. I'd just arrived in Spain for the first time, ready for 9 months of studying abroad in Bilbao. I was reasonably confident in my Spanish skills, having taken a few semesters of it before leaving. So the very first day in town, I'd been told by my study abroad program that I needed to make my way to my new apartment on my own and sign the paperwork with my new landlord. I was a little annoyed at not being given more help (even the address indicated on a map would have been nice!), but I thought I knew enough Spanish to figure it out. So I hailed a cab to take me to the little town of Getxo. Except the cabbie didn't know the address I'd told him, and couldn't find it on his GPS. He ended up dropping me near Getxo's main square, telling me to try calling someone to help me. Yes, great idea, if I had a phone OR the landlord's phone number! So, dragging my heavy suitcases behind me, I started walking until I found someone to ask about the street. One terribly annoying thing about Getxo at this time was that all the names for everything had recently been changed into Basque on the street signs, but none of the people in town actually used those names when referring to said places, they still used the old Spanish names. So, almost no one knew what street I wanted. But finally, one little old lady knew where I needed to go, and was happy to give me directions. One problem though. I had no idea how to say the words left or right. So...her directions made absolutely no sense to me. Pretending I'd understood (being too embarrassed to say I hadn't caught a single word), I went off in the direction she'd pointed, hoping for the best. After dragging my suitcases around what felt like half the town, and following several more pointing fingers, I did eventually make it there. And later that night, I looked up "a la izquierda" and "a la derecha" and committed them firmly to memory!
The double RR in Calle Gobelaurre didn't help my cause, I'm sure!
2. A few days later, my new roommates and I were trying to order a pizza over the phone. In general, speaking a foreign language on the phone is utter torture, although I didn't yet know this at the time. But I was about to learn how the absence of body language and hand signals makes a HUGE difference in comprehension. I started ordering the pizza, thinking everything was fine, but the girl on the other end had no idea what I was saying and was getting increasingly agitated. My Spanish was so bad that the worker at Telepizza thought I was a prank caller and hung up on me!
3. I had lots of problems eating at first! Another day not long after that, I was starving and wanted a chicken kebab. However, I couldn't remember if the word chicken was masculine or feminine in Spanish, so I just took a chance and said one to the worker at the kebab shop. But of course, I picked the wrong one. Pollo means chicken, but change that last O to an A, and suddenly you have a slang word for penis. So yes, I asked for a roasted penis kebab, and the look on the man's face was priceless!
4. My second semester in Bilbao, after many situations like these and realizing that my Spanish needed some serious help, I decided to change from living in an apartment with other Americans to a homestay with a Spanish family. I imagined them taking me in like one of their own, teaching me about the Spanish language and their culture at the same time, like my own parents had done when we had exchange students when I was little. However, that was not to be. I was soon introduced to the world of people who host foreign exchange students mostly for the money said students pay them. I barely saw my host parents in the first few months I was living with them, and we rarely talked.
By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, I wanted to try to rectify the situation and get closer with them, so I asked them if I could try to cook them some traditional American Thanksgiving foods so we could have a little celebration, and they seemed excited about the idea. I'd never cooked Thanksgiving dinner before, so I decided to give myself plenty of time and start in the morning. I was making my way pretty blindly, following directions my mom was giving me on Skype. Around 2pm I'd just taken a squash out of the oven, and my host mom came home, upset. "What are you still doing in the kitchen? My husband will be home any minute wanting his lunch, and you can't still be in here! He's going to be really angry! Finish this up, fast! What do you still have left to do?"
Surprised, I tried to explain that I was going to pick the seeds out of the squash, then leave it to cool while I made the pie crust, then put that in the pie pan, then I needed to mix the rest of the ingredients together with the squash, and put them in the crust, then cook it all. O sea, not a quick task. I offered to take a break while her husband had his lunch and continue later. But she wasn't having any of that. I'm pretty certain than my explanation of what I had left to do had left something to be desired, since she picked up the bowl of squash, seeds and all, and dumped it into the pie pan. "Finished! Now move it!" Frustrated, I tried once again to explain just how many steps I had left to complete, that there couldn't be seeds in the squash. But now she was angry. "Your Spanish is awful. You don't make any sense. You're not improving at all, and no wonder, you're always on Skype with your American boyfriend and your parents," she yelled. "And what is this nonsense, 'cups, tablespoons?' This is Spain, and if you want to be here, you need to use the metric system!" She went on and on.
Holding back tears, I continued trying to work and explain to her what I needed to do, but it soon became impossible. I'll never forget the helplessness I felt in that moment, when I just wanted to explain myself, defend myself against my host mom's attacks, and the words simply weren't there. Even if I HAD known the cooking vocabulary I needed, the strong emotions brought up by all the yelling made thinking about verb conjugations and the gender of nouns seriously impossible. All I could think about was not letting her see the tears in my eyes, and how the lump in my throat made it feel like I was choking with even the smallest attempts to talk. Eventually, I had to tell her I was going to stop for awhile. Then I went to my bedroom so I could cry about the whole situation on the phone to my mom. This remains, to date, the hardest time I've ever had speaking Spanish, and that awful feeling will probably never fade from memory completely.
Yes, the pie did eventually get made, thank god, and I gave most of it to my friends instead of my awful host family!
5. A few years later, I was getting off the bus from the airport in Vigo, ready to start working as an auxiliar de conversación. My new boss came to pick me up from the bus station and take me to A Cañiza, where I was going to be working. I'd seen on the internet that the place was remote, but as we headed off into the mountains, I began to realize just how far from everything it really was. He got me all checked into a hotel and told me he'd see me the next day, at the school, which was just next door. "Just walk in and ask for me with the secretary, she'll know where to find me," he said. Jet-lagged out of my mind, I agreed without thinking and made my way up to my room and collapsed into bed.
What felt like moments later, I heard a knocking on the door. Confused, I saw the cleaning lady poke her head in. "Son las 12, tienes que irte." It was already noon the next day! I quickly got dressed and checked out, leaving my things at the front desk, and headed over to the school. The secretary did indeed lead me to the director, who quickly introduced me to my new colleagues. So many new people! My head was spinning with all the names. I was quickly led off by the head of the English department, who wanted to know what types of lessons I had planned for the high school students I'd be working with. Huh?? I thought I was just an assistant?? When it became clear that I had never taught before and had no idea what I was doing, she led me back to the staff room, where people suddenly started asking me where I was going to live. "Uhhhh....I don't know," I said, completely overwhelmed. I had thought about it, of course, but I didn't really know what I should do, and I'd been hoping there would be people there to advise me. Soon enough, there was a group of teachers gathered around me, arguing about whether Ourense or Vigo was better, while I tried desperately to follow the conversation through my jetlagged fog, unsure whether I was actually going to get any say in where I'd be living or not. I couldn't figure out how to break into the conversation to give my opinion since they were speaking so fast (not that I was really sure what my opinion was anyway). Finally, it was decided that I would get a ride from one of the English teachers back to Vigo. So that was where I ended up living!
As we drove 45 minutes back towards Vigo, I indexed my mind for topics to chat about. It had been years since I'd had to make small talk in Spanish, and I had forgotten a lot. I felt super rusty, in addition to still being so jetlagged. We covered the basics in about 10 minutes, where I came from and why I wanted to be in Spain, etc. And then? Wanting to make a good impression on my new coworker, not wanting to be known from the very beginning as the "Awkward American," and not able to remember enough vocabulary to talk about more complicated topics, I started rambling about the only Spanish words I could think of at the time--family. So I talked at length about my nephews and niece...for a full 30 minutes.
Eventually, as we drove an hour and a half together per day several times a week over the next two years, my skills in making small talk in Spanish got better...a little. And my poor coworker learned a LOT of random things about my nephews and niece!
One of the best views of Vigo
6. When I was working in A Cañiza, one of my coworkers was always trying to convince me to have lunch with everybody in the comedor. I did sometimes, when I was too lazy to pack myself a lunch, but most days I didn't feel like paying to eat school cafeteria food. However, I also had another reason not to eat with them, which was that it was SO AWKWARD. Most of the time at school, the teachers who didn't speak English would talk to me in Spanish, which was fine. I understood them well enough one-on-one, and my Spanish was improving enormously. However, at lunchtime, when talking to each other, many of them would revert back to their native galego, the beautiful cousin to both Spanish and Portuguese spoken in Galicia. I have no problem with galego, I think it's a very pretty language, but back then, especially at first, I couldn't understand a word they were saying. And this was exacerbated at lunchtime, when the cries of the children were mixed with forks clanking on plates, when there was a group of 15 Spaniards all excited to talk to one another and constantly interrupting in increasingly louder voices. I would sit there, trying with all my might to follow along for about the first 10 minutes, until I got too tired and gave up, staring off into space. This isn't the only time I've felt bewildered during a mealtime conversation surrounded by foreigners, but I've rarely felt as lost as I did when surrounded by people shouting and interrupting each other in galego.
7. One morning earlier this school year in Alcalá, I woke up to a terrible text message from my mom. "Grandma fell. Not expected to live." Distraught, and knowing that they would be flying out to Arizona in the morning and I couldn't call until they arrived, I was distracted all morning at school. Finally, at lunch time it was late enough that I could go outside and try to call. Cursing Skype for not connecting me immediately when I felt like I was going to go crazy if I didn't hear something soon, I eventually got some more details via Whatsapp until I had to go back to eat some lunch before my next class. Unable to stop thinking about it all, unable to cover the distress on my face, the second I walked into the lunchroom everyone knew something was wrong. A group of teachers gathered around me as I sat down, wanting to know if I was all right. Although I appreciated their concern so much, trying to explain the situation in Spanish seemed impossible, when I needed technical medical vocabulary that I've never learned. The second the first words left my lips, tears started running down my face. A hug from someone helped more than she probably knew, but I was incredibly grateful when they let me stop talking and eat my green beans in silence, dabbing at my eyes as I chewed. It was so embarrassing to have cried like that in front of everyone, especially when Spanish culture is so much about showing a proper face to the world, but in that moment I was a sad emotional American, and I didn't care. But once again, I learned that speaking another language when you're crying feels almost impossible.
8. I wish I could say this has only happened to me once, but it's a recurring incident. I'm single, so most of the years I've been in Europe I've been dating, or flirting with, or had a crush on different guys. Dating is hard enough in your own culture, but add different body language and a foreign tongue on top of that, and you have a guaranteed recipe for looking stupid. Something you have to know about Spaniards is that they touch each other WAY more than Americans do. Most of the time, this overly touchiness just makes me feel vaguely uncomfortable, but there have been several occasions where I got confused and thought that the fact that some guy kept touching me meant he was into me. So, I thought, I would try to flirt back. Except, oh my god is flirting about a million times harder in another language. You have no idea what the typical expressions for flirting are, you want desperately to sound smooth, except that with every word that leaves your mouth, you cringe, knowing you sound like Tarzan. "You boy. Me girl. We date?"And then, it turns out, he was just touching you because he's Spanish and that's what they do. Uffda!
9. Last year in France, I actually did go out with a guy for awhile. Long enough for him to introduce me to first his grandparents and then his parents. His grandparents were adorable and hilarious, particularly the grandpa, who kept telling me funny stories about fighting in World War II and his American penpal who may or may not have been dead, since he hadn't heard from her in awhile. He immediately put me at ease with his humor and his incessant conversation, which didn't require me to talk very much. Meeting the Frenchie's parents, however, made me infinitely more nervous. Was I supposed to use vous with them or not? Would my French hold up to extended conversation? I was lucky, because I ended up using tu and they weren't offended, and they were very nice. However, sounding good in French with them wasn't easy, especially when they fed me tiny sea snails while we were doing so, which I was supposed to pull out of their shell with a safety pin, put on bread, and eat. Goodbye, any hopes of not sounding OR looking foolish!
10. A couple of times here in Europe, I've gone out with a guy long enough that we felt ready to say the L word to each other. Except, in a foreign language, it's not the L word. And that's really hard. If expressing your emotions in general in another language is bizarre, because the act of using that other language turns off your emotions and makes you more rational, then trying to express this particular emotion is SUPER difficult. In my experience, having someone tell you te quiero or je t'aime just doesn't, can't, mean as much as if it were in your native language. To me, those words will never have the same impact as saying, in English, I love you. It is what it is, but that doesn't make speaking another language in this situation any easier!
In the end, this is the only solution to sounding like an idiot in a foreign language, whether the situation is happy or sad. Laugh it off, there's nothing else you can do about it!
Please, god, tell me I'm not the only one to have had these ridiculously hard moments speaking a foreign language. Am I???