“Ay, cabrón, vale madre.”
“No manches, somos equipo.”
Phrases and laughter escape from the group of friends. I smile and try to laugh, but it’s unnatural as I don’t catch the joke. I try to catch my husband’s eye to let him know I feel uncomfortable — maybe he can signal me to what is so funny — but he is laughing along, part of la broma.
Even the words I can understand, I can’t translate into any coherent meaning. I struggle to tread water to stay afloat in their words — but they are on their own separate island. I am tempted in this moment to tune out, as I often did in the beginning of my language learning.
In the past, when people around me were having conversations full of slang and humor, I would often slip into my own thoughts, feeling unable to contribute. I became slightly unsocial or gave cordial but simple remarks.
These days, I’ve been feeling more confident. I participate in conversations with strangers. I meet friends for lunch. I engage in genuine communication. But in this moment, I am lost again, drifting in the sea of humor that leaves me on the outside. And I want to retreat, but this time I force myself to pay attention.
The reason second-language acquisition can be so difficult is that it relies entirely on human interaction. The entire essence of language is being able to communicate with others, so you have to use it in context of people. You cannot learn a language on your own.
For someone who tends more towards introversion and perfectionism, the thought of other people misunderstanding me drives me crazy. I choose my words precisely and I craft my thoughts with care.
This perfectionism with language is what made me avoid really learning Spanish the first time around. I hated hearing myself awkwardly mispronounce a word. I dreaded someone laughing at me. I disliked feeling imperfect, so I avoided the struggle.
Now that I am learning Spanish for the second time, people misunderstand me all the time. But people rarely laugh. They just ask me to repeat myself or give me a strange look. Perhaps they feel just as uncomfortable as I do, thinking they are the ones who are confused.
I often misinterpret, too. I might miss a question or think someone told me “derecha” when they really said “derecho.” If I wasn’t determined to thrive in my new country, I might be tempted to throw in the towel, find some English speakers, and live an isolated life.
Not acquiring Spanish would be easier on some levels. I wouldn’t have to feel uncomfortable when someone asks me for my phone number and I pause too long between veinte and dos, so they write 20–2 instead of 22. I wouldn’t feel foolish for addressing someone incorrectly as tu (¿Cómo estás?) rather than usted (¿Cómo está?). I wouldn’t feel embarrassed to have to reply “Mande” — tell me, again.
If we could practice a language alone — like we could when learning an instrument — maybe more people would do so. But the only way to get feedback and to improve is to interact with the world.
You have to find the people who are patient enough to slow down, listen, and engage in genuine conversation. For me, getting past my own language shame has liberated me to get back to living among others as an equal. Finding people who are learning English helps, because they also understand the real struggle of crazy language rules.
But you don’t have to limit yourself to other bilinguals or language learners — all people can help. We are social creatures, and we desire to understand. So easing into the tension of not understanding, not feeling comfortable, is exactly what we need to break through the language barriers.
Approach someone in the store who speaks your target language, and ask a question, even if you don’t need help. Find a language guide who listens and then stops to give you correction. Find a coach who walks alongside you and wants to see you improve.
And for those of us who are a bit more hesitant, supplement your actual conversations with other social interactions. Watch movies, listen to podcasts, search for talk shows, find stand-up comics — as long as you find people who use their native language in a natural setting, these situations can help you, too. In fact, I think my real growth in listening and speaking came from watching Club de Cuervos on Netflix. Finally, I was exposed to multiple accents, cussing, and slang in real time. So now, when it happens in my actual life, I can choose to tune-in to the noise.
As the friends continue to laugh, I take in their hand gestures and facial expressions. I pay attention to the words I know and the social context of our neighbors. Afterward, with an exhausted mind of someone who has been doing life-saving exercises for the past 40 minutes, I tell my husband what I understood.
“Yeah, you got it.”
“But I swear I didn’t understand A SINGLE WORD.”
“Well, you understood enough.”
And maybe that’s all it takes. Keep trying. Don’t give up when you miss a word or a hundred. Pay attention to what you can understand. Take in the visual cues and vocal tones. Interpret the overall meaning. Survive in the wide world of languages, and one day, you just might find yourself with two feet on shore, part of the laughter.