12 September 2015

Language Arts

Using another language on vacation is a whole different thing from living your life in another language.  After a trip, sure, your brain is mush, but then you go back to handling life in English. And that's that.

Try moving, though.

There is no "going back to English". Your new normal is brain exhaustion. But you keep plugging along, hoping someday you won't sound like a third grader. You master the basics. But you soon realize that those happy chats with taxistas and market vendors are not fulfilling. You have opinions, you are interested. You miss feeling intelligent. You miss being heard. You want depth, an exchange of ideas beyond the weather and the price of papayas. You resolve to fill your days with deep and fascinating conversation. Enough of this Spanish 101 business.

It's time to level up, bitches.

But despite having a somewhat steady grasp on the nuts and bolts of the language, you are blissfully unaware of the number of factors at play here:

You know how in your native language you listen to things without even trying? You talk on the phone while you check Facebook. You text and watch a movie. Or you update your blog while belting out some sweet harmony with your boys, the Eagles. You listen to your fifth-grade teacher perfectly well while reading A Wrinkle in Time, hidden inside your science textbook. (Curse you, Mrs. Dunkle. Give me my book back. Still got an A on your dumb test.) Yeah, well, forget all that. That's over. If you want to know what the hell is going on now, you have to focus. Your mind cannot wander. Multitasking? No. Done. Thinking about what to make for dinner? Sorry, nope. Full concentration mode. All the freaking time.

Background Noise
If there is music or TV in the background, forget it. You know how a sound engineer can adjust the volume on different audio tracks? Bring up the lead vocals, bring down the drums, mute that guy who coughed? Yeah, well, that's not you. Your brain cannot yet filter different tracks in your new language, let alone adjust or mute tracks. You never even knew your brain was automatically filtering out noise in your own language, did you? Now it's all on one track. Everything. Music, the person talking to you, the convo at the next table, TV, traffic, barking dogs, ticking clocks -- just one big, cacophonous assault on your ears.  If you're a noise-sensitive person (hello), this is anxiety hell.

If more than one person is talking at once, same deal. Your brain cannot filter that shit. In a group, there is no pause for "your turn". This is not call and response, people. By the time you formulate a sentence, the point you wanted to address is three sentences back and someone else has the floor. You do a lot of smiling and nodding. Which you hate because you are not a passive, smiling nodder by nature. Groups are often in places with -- you guessed it -- background noise, as well as our next factor: alcohol.

There is mother-tongue tolerance and there is new-language tolerance. Never the twain shall meet. You have a window of opportunity. One or two drinks: you're killing it. You're confident, you're conjugating, you're clever. Hola, mi compa, dónde está el baño, te ves guapa mi amor, siempre tomo el bus los miércoles, tengo un lapiz, regálame una birra, mae*!  You are in the zone. Okay, stop drinking now. Trust me, this is the best your language skills get. Order that next drink, and it's all downhill. It will hit fast, too. Like mid-sentence. Do not miss your window.

You know how in English, talking to someone from Boston is a world apart from talking to Honey Boo-Boo? How Scottish English is just a wee bit different from Texas English? Same thing. Costa Rican (tico) Spanish was, for me, a difficult accent. It's a river of softlyconnectedsoundsrushing past my ears rather than clear.distinct.separate.words. Then there are regional accents. You understand one guy easily, turn to his buddy and ... nada. Awkward. I quickly discoverd that no podía entender ni papa. Literally, "I couldn't even understand a potato". Which brings me to the next factor:

Every Spanish-speaking country has its own slang. I never know whether I'm learning standard Spanish or tico Spanish until I talk to someone from another country and they don't know what the hell I'm on about. Then there's pachuco, which is the really street tico slang. My husband is a librarian. I'm not very street in Spanish.

DeviantArt: panelgutter
If you are tired, stressed, sick, or angry, you can't even. This is why I still fail at arguing in Spanish, which is a pity because that shit would be satisfying as hell, pendejos. It's exasperating because the times when you are stressed, sick, tired, or mad are exactly when you need communication to be effortless, but nooo, your brain just shuts down. Access denied. That bastard retreats into its skull-cave to hibernate and leaves you to deal with the situation. Brainlessly.

Other factors
-- When people mumble, turn their head away, or cover their mouths.
-- Volume. Your brain can't fill in missing pieces like in English.
-- PA systems and microphones.
-- The phone. You can't see gestures, facial expressions, or the person's mouth, and sometimes audio quality sucks. If I don't pick up, take the hint. Leave a message.  Better yet, text me.

So it's a process. Sometimes it's just easier to smile and nod.

It feels like doing life with your brain all tangled up in giant bedsheets.

Sometimes it actually feels claustrophobic, and you go all spastic-freakout in your head, trying to mentally Bruce Lee your way out of the tangled covers so you can fucking breathe, but they're not real. You can't throw them off. The only way out is to calm your ass down and keep trying. Which is maddeningly slow and frustrating.

But it's also fun and satisfying with a lot of fuck, yeah! to it, like when ...
  • you realize you just watched the news ... and totally got it. 
  • you have a conversation without thinking about the language. 
  • you've gone from "Rains. No parasol" to "If I'd known it was going to rain, I would've brought my umbrella." 
  • some guy catcalls you and you cut him off without breaking stride. 
  • you can read novels. (Yes, of course with the Kindle dictionary. What am I, Merriam-Webster?)
  • you can finally talk to someone in a crowded bar with music playing. (What is it with the 80s music? That shit just stays popular in other countries.)
Right?  Fuck, yeah. That's what keeps you plodding forward. Incrementally.

So listen up, friends. When you hear people speaking with an accent and making mistakes, don't you judge them. That shit is hard. Their brains can never relax. Their brains are probably fucking exhausted. And if they sound like a third grader, do not assume they're not intelligent. They could be a rocket scientist in their own language. Maybe smile at them. Maybe ask them what they think. Catch their eye. Maybe pause your own mouth for a minute so they can arrange their thoughts into words you can understand. Maybe include them if you're in a group and they're smiling and nodding a lot.

I started this draft almost four years ago. Now I can say "I speak Spanish" without feeling like a fraud. A lot of the factors above aren't such a big deal anymore. I'm not going to lie, though; sometimes they still kick my ass. People ask if I'm fluent, and I never know how to answer. According to criteria online, I guess I am. Sort of. Maybe. In my own mind ... um ... no, I don't feel fluent. Hey, perfectionist here. Blessing and curse, people.

My accent is getting better. Thankgawd. What I wouldn't give to have a sexy accent. Italian, Spanish, French, Hungarian. Face it, of all the world's accents, the gringo* accent has got to be among the ugliest.  We are the nails on the chalkboard of accents. And that's what I'm working with here, folks.  No matter how fluent I become, that accent will still be there, assaulting Costa Rican ears like an enthusiastic child learning violin. On an out-of-tune instrument. After guzzling Mountain Dew.

Last week, someone asked if I was French after we'd been talking a while. (I know, right?) Seeing my expression, he amended it. Swedish? Not ... Dutch? I said I was from the States, and bless his heart, he was surprised. Apologized! I was like, nooo, no apology necessary, good sir; just let me shine those boots up for you and build you this pedestal real quick. Hey, I know what the accent of my people sounds like. I'm under no illusions. I totally took that shit as a compliment.

Granted, it was probably just in comparison with the hordes of gringos who move here and never learn to speak beyond Yoh kee-ay-roh Tack-oh Bell, but still.  I'll take it.


*Gringo/gringa is not offensive or derogatory in Costa Rica. Took me a while to get that, but it's just what people say here. No negative connotation at all.  Now, if someone calls you yanqui ... okay, not good. 

*Mae = dude.  It's like güey in Mexican Spanish. 

*Alcohol-induced, in-the-zone Spanish: "Hey, my friend, where is the bathroom, you're looking good, baby, I always take the bus on Wednesday, I have a pencil, bring me a beer, dude!"


  1. So weird. I actually have considered Cracked, but you all know how I do ... it was a "Yes, I'll do THAT!" moment, and I started looking for things to submit, and then ... look, a dog video, and have you made your lesson for tomorrow?

    It was an experiment. The list-ish thing. In general I abhor the listicles that have taken over the Interwebs. I used a modified version here because there were actual relevant categories -- maybe new (and hopefully interesting) info for people who haven't had to live in another language -- and I thought this might break it up visually. Because brevity. Not my strong suit to begin with, and I don't want to drive readers to skim or click on dog videos.

    A blog post should not, I suppose, be the length of a short story, especially in this format where the writing is confined to a skinny little scrolling strip that makes it look even longer. Not that I could write short stories. I've never written fiction, other than the illustrated and illustrious Cat and Kitten series I penned at the age of eight.

    Also, I'm still working on a clever name for a new blog that may attract people interested in CR with questions like, "Is Spanish hard?" and "What is life like on the island?", so ... yeah, experiment.

    80s music ... you know, I roll my eyes, but when it comes on, I'm the first to bust out with, "Uh oh ... aw yeah, there it is!" It's just so weird that 80s music stays so popular in other countries.

    Hat: Mi lapiz para siempre! Me gusta el baño!

    Kidding. Don't yell that anywhere. "A-ha para siempre! La música de los ochenta es mi vida!" Yeah ... not quite as brief.

  2. This was so good!! Although I've never even bothered to try to master another language, I think anyone can understand those symptoms of being a little bit on the outside of understanding. (I really like how I approached languages and mixing them up and the fantastical chemistry one experiences but it gets SO wearisome and all those things you wrote about so well become the stuff that makes someone ache ache ACHE with nostalgia for even the nitwit among their own countrymen. Ha.)

    I also am CRAZY about your 'four years later' update. I didn't expect to be inspired, but ... ta da and horns and all that stuff. I was. Such a wonderful post.

  3. You are brilliant...ditto hat, booda, and jp's comments. Yeah, I took Latin in high school...I remember puella...that's it. I did know puto when I was in high school, but I think that's a bad word.

  4. Booda, you know of what I speak with the wearisome part, having experienced Hungarian. Talk about a difficult language. Six years of trying, and I was only about at preschool level when I left. Makes German and Spanish seem like a walk in the park, and I am grateful to live in a place where the language is (in comparison) fairly easy to get a handle on. I hear you about those nostalgic days when you're just brain-tired and longing for anything familiar. But then some asshattery on the Interwebs usually cures me of that. I do love where I am.

    Rosemary, yes, "puto" is a dirty, dirty word -- derogatory to The Gays -- and "puta" is a dirty, dirty whore. Odd, "puta" was considered pretty offensive by my Mexican friends, but in Costa Rica, the many versions of "hijo de puta" are fairly benign. Huepucha, I'll have to write about that sometime.


I've got a fever ...