To Continue Griping on Learning a Language

9 Jun

Maybe this week is another wall of sorts. I’m kind of sick of speaking Spanish at the moment. Eh, no, let me clarify that. I’m not sick of speaking Spanish, but I just miss simple things like being able to clearly express myself and being totally understood. I know that people compliment me on my second language ability, but there is a definite lacking to not only say what I want to say, but to do so clearly and sound educated at the same time. I don’t want to talk like a 5 year old every day.

Little pockets of relief come in having one or two expat friends, but since the community is always growing and shrinking, it’s hard to keep things consistent, and even then I only meet up once a week if that. It gets tiring always having to strain yourself thinking of words, or knowing that you just made a mistake and trying to remember not to make it again while continuing a conversation. Speaking faster than I should is a big problem.

Every day is a challenge in some way, and I wanted to face this, to know what it’s like from the other side of the wall. Having firsthand experience of expat/immigration life has really given me a new insight on the situation back home in the United States. There is so much that people don’t understand. The struggles and little triumphs just to get your life at a point which you can call normal, and to hope that you’re not being taken advantage of because you’re not fully fluent or from that cultural background.

I think sometimes about how you rarely if ever compliment someone on their English in the United States if it’s obvious that they are a foreigner. Instead of praising them, it’s assumed that they should speak English well, and if they have a thick accent, a common misconception would be that they’re stupid. You can hold a PhD and have a thick accent from your home country.

Here, people often tell me that I speak Spanish well, sometimes with a shocked face, as if it’s assumed that as an American I will speak poorly. Yet it’s not meant as an insult, but rather a true assessment of how difficult it is to speak a foreign language well, especially one that you did not grow up with all around you. Though not in all cases, speaking a foreign language is a skill and natural talent like the natural ability in math or art. You can be born with a certain aptness for language, which is why some people are better writers than others. Otherwise, it can be learned through years of study and practice.

Many international companies have call centers here in Buenos Aires and throughout the world. The people who work there have studied for years to get a slightly better paying job, yet still most likely work terrible hours based off of U.S. time zones. Think about someone you know who has ever called for technical support and gotten frustrated over the accent or English ability of the person on the other end. First of all, if you don’t even speak another language you are in no position to complain. And to clarify, knowing “Cinco de Mayo,” “amigo,” and “bon appétit” do not count as speaking another language. Second of all, speaking over the phone is the hardest thing to do. Not being able to see mouths moving, speaking quickly into muffled connections, and background noise make it nerve-wracking. And thirdly, these people that you assume are not educated for working at a call center and having thick accents are just as or maybe more educated than most people. Don’t hate them because they don’t speak with an East coast accent. If anything, blame the company for outsourcing the work.

These are the kinds of thoughts that come into my head as I struggle with my own second language abilities. The ups and downs inevitably make me see things more clearly, which is exactly what I wanted in the first place. Never take your first language for granted because it’s a gift. The second language has to be earned.


2 Responses to “To Continue Griping on Learning a Language”

  1. Brian Horstman June 9, 2010 at 10:05 pm #

    Amen to all of the points you raise.

    To them I would add that the surprised look on many faces upon meeting an American who can speak Spanish with ease not only shows how difficult it is to truly become comfortable with a foreign language. It also reflects how many Americans come to Latin America for vacation without ever investing a few extra dollars and months on a Spanish course before they get there.

    • Jon June 10, 2010 at 11:06 pm #

      I can see that point too. I always see some people who might know one or two words in Spanish and just assume that most people will speak English. On the other hand though, I have a biased opinion because I speak Spanish. I know I’ve been in countries where I didn’t speak a word of the language and relied on English. So I guess what you can take away is that knowing at least one other language is nice, but won’t get you everywhere.

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