Just Smile and Nod

What is it like to live in a country whose language isn’t your own?

Well, let me tell you…

Imagine you are watching a movie and the audio keep cutting out. When the sound is functioning, you understand what is going on and can hazard guesses as to what will happen next or where the action will logically flow next. When the sound drops, you have to guess what’s happening based on facial expressions, hand gestures, bodily movement. But when the audio cuts out during one scene and returns during another, you find yourself mentally scrambling to find the context so you’ll understand just what in the hell the characters are talking about.

Sometimes you understand 100% of what is going on and sometimes you are lost.

 When all else fails, just smile and nod.

That’s how it is for me in Chile. Luckily I have a decent grasp of the Spanish language. But even so, there are times when I find my brain turning off, so to speak, and my thoughts wondering. I think those must be mental breaks that I subconsciously give myself – because anyone who’s been in a foreign country knows: thinking or translating another language is exhausting!

My experience with Spanish began almost 17 years ago when I first met Mark. I took two years of Spanish in college but the classroom setting wasn’t very helpful for my learning style. It wasn’t until I studied abroad in Granada, Spain that I began to really speak Spanish. Total immersion is the secret. It was a little daunting, I’ll admit, but if something isn’t a little challenging, then where is the excitement in that?

In Spain, I attended the Universidad de Granada and took Spanish language classes in Spanish with no English translation – nada. I went on every planned excursion and also traveled on my own and with friends. My friend, Lauren, and I made a deal with each other – whenever we went out together, we would take turns speaking. This buddy system really helped boost our confidence. We were there to help each other out but at the same time, we gave each other the practice we needed. I highly recommend this approach to anyone studying abroad.

 El Centro de Lenguas Modernas, Granada (Photo Credit)

I continued my experience with the Spanish language through Mark. Being around Spanish-speakers helps tune one’s ear to the language. After awhile you are able to identify common sounds and phrases and yes, even curse words. When my mother-in-law visited or when we went to Chile, of course, I got more practice. This periodic experience was helpful but I’m in no way fluent because of this.

“Semi-fluent” would be the best term for someone like me. Fluency means accuracy of expression, both in writing and speaking. When I speak Spanish, I’m sure I sound like a cave woman. I drop my verb endings, mix tenses, and sometimes grunt when I can’t think of a word. As for reading and writing, my Spanish is so-so. The plus is that when I need to write in Spanish, I usually have time to think about what I want to say and even look stuff up. When talking, there is an immediacy which means sloppy Spanish.

Anyway – no pasa nada – don’t worry about it. I’ll learn more and get better as the days pass.

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