Biblioteca Palafoxiana; Puebla, México

Lost in Language

Sometimes you think you understand the Spanish language, like when you watch a movie and understand the main plot line and even laugh at some of the jokes.

Other times you feel like you’ve never understood one iota of Spanish, like when you attend a celebration and the comedian is telling a joke and everyone laughs at the punchline except for you. Or when you walk into the bank and the only word you understand — maestra — means something completely different. I actually still don’t know what they meant, but it sure wasn’t “teacher” which is the only way I know how to translate that word.

Or when you’re talking to your mother-in-law in Spanish and understand every word and can reply in semi-complete sentences, and then your husband enters the room and she continues speaking what you know to be Spanish, but you can’t catch a phrase that makes sense. The speed enhances, the slang advances, and you are left bouncing like a ping pong ball between the two desperately trying to identify a word, any word, that you know might be Spanish.

My vocabulary has definitely expanded, and I can tell I have picked up more confidence when I engage with strangers. Instead of mumbling incoherently, hoping they will just assume I said the right thing, I now look them in the eye with a confident buenas tardes, aquí tienes, or hasta luego like I might actually fake the language barrier.

Language competency of any kind opens doors. I have always loved words and part of the magic of becoming bilingual is the enhancement of understanding. Love, for example, has only one term in English and its meaning must be gleaned from context.

There are two words for love in Spanish — amor and querer — and while both can be used interchangeably, the fact that one can decide which love they desire to impart is something magical about Spanish. Or the way words roll off the tongue and dance on your lips like bachata — smooth and close — often getting entangled and lost in intimacy just like a pair of dancers. I have never experienced that sentiment while speaking English, where words are practical and exact.

I not only speak English but I have intimately studied it. According to Belmont University, I am a Master of the art. While I may never obtain dominion over Spanish, it enthralls me and beckons me further.

One day I hope I will sit down for a comedic act and not skip a beat when the punchline is thrown. One day I might understand enough slang to turn other Spanish speakers’ heads with my usage. One day I may actually blend into a crowd and become the surprise when they learn I only started speaking Spanish at age 30.

My appearance belies the fact that I am often lost in the language of my new land. But I look forward to the day that, perhaps to best express myself, I choose to write in my second language instead.



Born a Midwestern American, now a permanent Mexican resident. Outdoor adventurer, language enthusiast, and lover of classical music.

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