Over the weekend I passed my 9 month mark of being in Mexico. I love it here: The culture, the weather, the history, the music, the food, the people. Everything feels right and I’m constantly bugging my Mexican friends and students to tell me more about their culture and what their opinions are on current events.
But there’s one little problem: These conversations occur in English. I still cannot speak Spanish.
In fact, I’m not even going to try and sugarcoat it: After nine months, I’m still essentially a beginner.
When I came to this country in November, Spanish was a very new language for me. In school I learnt Welsh, French and German – Spanish wasn’t even an option.
In the months running up to my departure, I watched a ton of Mexican/Latin American films in preparation for what I was about to immerse myself in. I also download every album Café Tacuba ever released. With a phrasebook and pocket dictionary in hand, I felt prepared.
Then, of course, I arrived and it was a whole other story. It’s one thing to watch a subtitled 2-hour feature of actors being overly-dramatic. It’s another to be faced with real-life situations.
Nevertheless, I did try to speak some Spanish. I carried my phrasebook with me religiously and learned how to greet people for the first time and ask how they were, read menus, ask for the bill in restaurants, ask how much something was, and how to say I didn’t understand something.
Life was pretty easy the first couple of months. I was learning how to be an English Language teacher – which, of course, requires nothing but English - and surrounded myself with English-speaking friends who usually had a much better grasp of Español than yours truly.
When I moved to D.F., it was even easier. My full-time teaching job meant that I was speaking English to a lot of people for a lot of hours and, once again, I was surrounded by fellow English-speakers.
There was no need for me to learn Spanish.
Don’t get me wrong – I want to be able to speak Spanish. I really do. I want to be bilingual – hell, maybe even multilingual one day – but the truth is that nothing has progressed thanks to my full schedule and – admittedly – a lot of laziness on my part.
I started feeling ashamed of myself.
But it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that my lack of Spanish put me in a scary situation.
I’d been given a new class at Santa Fe - the corporate headquarters of Mexico City. (It’s a really disgusting place if, like me, you’re deeply turned off by Capitalism.) In order to get there I had to take a little microbus from Tacubaya – an area I’d only heard bad things about (like how dangerous it was and that a person shouldn’t go walking around there alone).
I got to Tacubaya and searched for a microbus with the “Santa Fe” sign on its window. I saw none. I wandered around for a while wondering if I’d missed something but still couldn’t see anything. I was also already late for my class.
What would a normal person in this situation do? Ask for directions, right?
And what did I do? Not that.
Why? I didn’t know how to.
I came to realise that I was lost and overwhelmed in a new ‘dangerous’ part of the city with only 10 pesos for the bus and no way of asking for help.
I even began to break down and cry. (The world’s smallest violin for Ceri.)
Of course, the school I work at does put on free Spanish lessons for its teachers.(Don’t worry – I didn’t get mugged or kidnapped in Tacubaya – one of the girls from the school called me and spoke to a random person on the street after I thrust my phone in his face with an overbearing smile and nod trying to hide my look of desperation.) My schedule through January-June meant I couldn’t attend them though, as I was also teaching when those classes were held.
Come July, I’ve been given a new schedule that means I can attend those classes now.
I’ve missed the first three weeks due to nothing but fear. I’m scared of looking like an idiot and not being able to do well. I’m scared of sitting in the Basic class with other people who know exactly what’s being instructed, while I’m sat there like a deer in headlights.
People think exposure to a culture is the perfect way to learn a language. It’s really not. A lot of my students try to encourage my Spanish outside of class by saying, “Come on, teacher, just practice. Just start speaking.” But how can you start speaking when you genuinely don’t know any words? It’s not as if they’re magically going to appear on my tongue when I’ve never seen them before.
Learning a language is more than just being around people who speak it. I guess some people can pick it up that way. I can’t because everyone learns differently. I learn and remember Spanish words by seeing them written down. If someone tells me what a word is, it’s completely disappeared from my head within 20 minutes.
As a Language teacher, I already know what my strengths and weaknesses are with Spanish: I do pretty well with reading and listening by picking out words I know and then figuring out what’s being said through that. My speaking ability is non-existent. So’s my writing. As for my grammar? Well, I have quite a large Spanish vocabulary built up in my head due to months of being exposed to a lot of different words. I just don’t know how to put them together. I don’t know how to form a sentence. (That’s where my speaking and writing blocks come from.)
For the first time in … well, ever, I’m genuinely scared of trying something new and failing.
But, on the other hand, I don’t want to be put in a position like I was in Tacubaya again. I want to at least be able to make conversation with someone here.
The next Spanish class at the school is tomorrow morning at 10.30am. I’m going to go.
If Mexico has taught me one thing it’s that I tend to develop a lot of fears of things that challenge me. I’ve always been a perfectionist and get easily frustrated with things that take a little time to learn. In December I developed a fear of Salsa dancing – Why? Because I was no good at it and didn’t know what to do. Luckily, I got over that fear by just going for it one night and not caring about how I looked or moved.
Spanish language is my new fear so the only thing for me to do is to turn up to that class tomorrow and try my best by remembering that I can’t be perfect at everything.
Wish me luck?
Have you ever struggled to learn another language? What did you do?