The Art of a Foreign Language

20 Sep

In my new apartment we have students coming and going fairly frequently. Aside from my Argentinian roommate who is in charge and I, people stay here between two weeks to a couple of months. The students vary, though they mainly come from Europe and study through a program called Exspanish. I’ve only been in this apartment for three months but I’m like an old timer now. It’s sort of funny to hear the new roommates discussing their first days or trying to figure out the city and language. It always winds up being the same sort of conversations.

What’s most interesting is that these students are mostly out of college by the time they come here trying to learn Spanish. For whatever reason, whether it be to improve their work or because of personal interest, they have chosen to use a vacation “living” in Buenos Aires and studying a foreign language. Some spend more time on the language part than others, but either way they get an education. I’ve only been speaking Spanish since the beginning of 2007, but after studying in Spain, volunteering in Ecuador, and working in Argentina, I’ve supposedly risen to the level of expert, fluency, bilingual, etc. According to some reports, anyway. It was by no means an easy process, but rather took extreme dedication on my part, and at the beginning of my first year in Argentina, even after a year of immersion in Ecuador, I still had a long way to go. I can only try to remember how bad it must have been before Ecuador.

I’m always amazed by the fact that those who go out on a limb and try to learn a second language are embarrassed by how they speak, whereas those who never even attempt to learn one or don’t bother trying show no shame in their inability. To me, it should be completely the other way around, but I myself always find shame in my Spanish and when told that I speak well, blush and say, “Oh no, I don’t speak very well, I need to get better.” It’s part true and part pat-on-the-back attempt at humility, while also feeding into the shame factor for not being flawless in something that you had to work extremely hard at. The person who speaks only English and says that everyone in the U.S. (or insert other English-speaking country) should do so as well or get out most likely has no idea how difficult it is to learn a foreign language.

Advanced math, such as calculus for example, could very well be likened to a foreign language. Or for me at least, calculus is a foreign language. I could study it for years and still be terrible. Yet I’d never be embarrassed for not being able to perform calculus on the spot. Hell no, that’s way too difficult and my brain doesn’t work that way. Not everyone is good at math, and likewise, not everyone is good at languages. Some people are merely better at certain fields. So why do we stumble when trying to speak in our foreign languages and often say to hell with it altogether? There’s always an exception, and I often come across someone with a terrible accent who can’t conjugate a verb to save their life, but they speak like a faucet that’s been left on. Either they’re too beginner to know how many mistakes they’re making or they just don’t care. It’s fun to speak in a foreign language, to know that you can communicate and survive, calling into account skills you never knew existed.

In order to succeed in a foreign language you have to try and eventually make mistakes. It’s the only way you’ll ever get better, because unless you are in a classroom environment, people are rarely going to stop you to correct you. Mainly because it’s rude, or it trips you up, or because they get the gist of what you’re saying and they need to get to the heart of the conversation rather than teach you. As a former teacher and constant learner, it tears me up every time I see someone mocking another person who tries to speak a foreign language, or laugh when someone says something incorrectly. It’s so insensitive and counterproductive, so uneducated and whether or not intentional, malicious. A snide remark or laugh can be the difference between someone continuing their studies or not.

As much as I play the roll of a clown making mistakes often or repeating bad words, whatever, it also hurts me when I feel like I’m being mocked for something I’ve said. Even if they are friends or not being totally degrading, it can hurt and for a moment, make me want to throw in the towel and just say “Fuck it, I’m going back to the States where I can finally understand everything and be understood at full speed.” Fortunately, after a moment I regain my composure and move on, even if it stings where my pride once glowed brightly.

Keep that in mind. We’re talking about people trying to learn a foreign language, using Argentina and Spanish as a base example. But let’s switch is up for a second. Now think about the United States. How high is your expectation for others to speak English, accent-free? How flawless is your second or third language? For those who have attempted and still attempt to better themselves by learning a language, keep at it. It takes more balls and courage to stand up and speak in a room full of locals, in their language, than it will ever take to point a finger and laugh at a person with an accent. That’s something that should be understood by everyone.


8 Responses to “The Art of a Foreign Language”

  1. Tyeisha September 21, 2010 at 3:55 pm #

    This is a great post. I agree that many people in the U.S. are just way too hard on people who are learning English. I always say that I am thankful English is my first language, because even as a Native speakers som eof the grammatical rules just don’t seem logical.

    • Jon September 21, 2010 at 9:57 pm #

      Thanks Tyeisha! It looks like you’ve got a great project going as well with your children. Good luck and keep it up, because even if they don’t appreciate it right now, they will some day. Thanks for reading!


  2. gberg September 22, 2010 at 3:23 pm #

    Good post, and I agree. I tried my hand at the same intensive Spanish class you took and I have to give you credit for following through until you reached expert status.

    With that out of the way, am I allowed to correct your English?

    “Aside from my Argentinian roommate who is in charge and *ME*, people stay here between two weeks to a couple of months.”

    Ohh, the irony!

    • Jon September 22, 2010 at 11:58 pm #

      No, Danny. I’m sorry but I have to correct you. “My friend and I.” You are incorrect. I edited over this and knew this was the right call. And even if by some odd chance I am wrong on this one, I claim poetic liberty and the right to write as I want.

      • gberg September 23, 2010 at 2:53 pm #

        Check again, Strunk.

  3. Jon September 23, 2010 at 7:25 pm #

    What exactly is a strunk?

  4. Zonia Bias August 1, 2011 at 6:44 pm #

    excellent article, really enjoyed reading it. will be back to read future posts.

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