¿Español? No me pregunte.
That’s the question I’m dreading when we return. Let’s just say it’s better and leave it at that. But the truth is, I’m embarrassed I haven’t learned more.
One of the troubles with language learning is that the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. So now I should just feel proud that I understand exactly how much I Spanish I can’t speak? That’s not very satisfying.
The kids, as expected, have done amazingly well. They’re both completely able to function in class, almost on level with the Spanish kids. They can understand virtually everything and make themselves understood. In fact, they translate for us in many situations and are now embarrassed when we give directions in halting Spanish to tourists lost in our neighborhood. In short, the kids have accomplished what we hoped for them. They worked so so hard, and it paid off. I’m incredibly proud and awed and inspired by them.
Of course, it wasn’t perfect by any stretch. Our inability to communicate led to so much frustration. So much angst. So much confusion and powerlessness. So much exhaustion for all of us.
It didn’t have to be so hard. There were many mistakes made. Our perfect selves would have avoided much of that drama. It all seems so clear now. We should have done a lot of things differently. And that’s why I call this next section:
Hindsight is 20/20
aka: Had I Known
I was out of my depth immediately, especially when confronted with this insane Andalusian accent and non-Latin American Spanish. Once any conversation got past the pleasantries, I floundered. Real classes before we left the U.S. would have helped. I did try, but they were all either too far away, or at the wrong time. And the cost of a tutor seemed extravagant when I thought our total immersion would certainly lead to quick fluency. The irony is that this magical thinking flies in the face of all my foreign language acquisition training, and yet I still believed it.
Take classes upon arrival: So despite feeling out of my depth constantly, for months I held on to this idea that the language would seep into my pores and I would be able to, if not have profound discussions, at least be able to function.
At last, and in desperation, Rob and I signed up for classes. It was helpful, but it took time to realize this particular school was not the right fit for me. Taking classes immediately would have allowed me to discover that sooner and make more of our time here.
Hire a tutor: Taking classes is great for practicing speaking with different Spanish learners, but nothing beats one-on-one tutoring with a native speaker to iron out your particular language difficulties. Plus, here, as with most things, tutoring is muy barato. Should we have done this right away? Yes. Did we?
We waited until I realized our school wasn’t working for me. I also should have hired a tutor for the less outgoing of our two kids. I think it would have made a world of difference, socially.
Set up language exchanges: The idea of meeting regularly with a native speaker who wants to practice English in exchange for helping you practice Spanish is excellent. But did I do it right away?
The truth is, I tried, but it’s harder than it seems. Timing logistics are tough, level compatibility is tricky, and personal rapport is more important that you might think. It took months to find a keeper… but maybe that’s just because my Spanish was so bad.
Don’t be shy: It will always be easier for an outgoing person to learn a language. But telling a shy person to stop being shy is like telling a bald guy to stop being bald. How is that going to work? I mean, really?
I force myself to get out there and practice. I have to, actually. But it’s exhausting. Demoralizing. Also? I’m a person who thrives on encouragement. Just give me a gold star and pat me on the head. When I talk to Spanish speakers who are patient, the language just flows… or at least chugs along. But the eye-rolls and huffs that are part of my usual daily interactions here makes the language center of my brain curl up in a corner and suck its thumb.
Don’t have a family: There is no such thing as Spanish language immersion when you live with three other English speakers. The kids come home from school, Rob “comes home” from work and we all go about our day speaking English. Even if we try to practice, the kids won’t stand for much of that nonsense. They’ve had enough already.
Strangely, they were opposed to the idea of me living with another family to improve my Spanish. I’ll ask again when they’re teenagers.
I could talk for hours on language acquisition and how it continues to play out for us. Communication really shaped our whole experience here and there are aspects of those dynamics that we’re still processing. But for now I’ll say: I’m proud of my family, vaguely disappointed in myself, desperate to keep what I’ve learned, inspired to improve, and hopeful that, in Austin, I will not actually have to answer the question: “So how is your Spanish now?”.