I’ve been using Spanish for probably 95% of my interactions here so far… It’s hard work! Even though I’ve been learning Spanish in my free-time for the past two-and-a-half years, basic things like ordering food (what’s a lonche?) and asking for directions (does the bus really leave from that unmarked corner?) are still pretty full-on endeavours. I’ve also been hanging out with a friend I made through Sharedtalk (who very kindly picked me up from Guadalajara airport in the evening of Day 0) and the guys who work at the hostel I’m staying at.
I’m mentally drained because I’m constantly forming sentences in my head, just hoping to come up with something coherent in time to keep up my side of the conversation. “Smile!”, my inner-monologue screams. It’s all a production. I’m like the labrador in the water energetically scrambling to stay afloat. I’m enjoying myself but my eyes are bulging and I’m not quite sure I’m doing it right.
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You know those moments when you don’t really know what to say only to come up with the perfect line hours later? I’ve been experiencing something similar to that on a regular basis. I was at the markets on Day 1 and there were two men selling coconuts. They were cutting them up on the spot and serving the meat with salt, chili and lime. I happily paid the 20 pesos to give it a try but, unfortunately, I didn’t really like the taste so I approached a group of people: “Do you want my coconut? I’m not Mexican, so I wanted to try, but I didn’t like it… Do you want my coconut?”
Even though I successfully got my point across and someone did take my coconut, I still felt pretty silly about my lack of eloquence. I’ve been trying to learn from these moments by re-writing history in my notebook. “As I’m not from here, I was curious about the coconut and wanted to try it. I don’t really like the taste though, so would you like the rest of it? It’s perfectly good… I just don’t want to have to chuck it out!” My thinking is I’m priming my brain to select better words in the future. I don’t know about the science behind it but it seems to be helping.
Qué chido, qué padre, ¡oye pendejo!, arre, sale, vale, las esculpturas no tienen chiste, hay un chingo de cosas…
Slowly but surely my Spanish is developing a personality. The more I talk with Mexicans, the more slang and collocations I learn, and the less I sound like a textbook or news reporter. I guess that’s what a day out at the football can do for you!
I watched these highlights of Barcelona vs Atlético on Day 4 and was able to follow every word. What a victory! But oh, you should’ve seen my face when I walked into a clothing shop yesterday and the sales assistant greeted me. Surprised, confused, a little apologetic, and with just a hint of amusement… I had no idea what she said!
Of course, what usually happens is somewhere in the middle: I’ll understand enough to be able to navigate a few more turns before having to ask someone else for more directions; I can follow someone’s story to the end but will ask to clarify on a key point. Today, I almost agreed to buy a necklace that was meant to help me receive the energy from the silver mines until I realised what cuarzo meant.
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I know I write about this a lot, but I’m being constantly reminded of the importance of perspective and keeping your emotions in check when dealing in a foreign language. That momentary pang of frustration when the shopkeeper reverts to English for you; that urge to explain yourself, that you knew that word only you just couldn’t hear them properly… You’ve got to be prepared to roll with the punches and celebrate the achievement of human-to-human communication!
Days 7 & 8
This trip is absolutely confirming my belief that it’s wrong to think you should put off learning a language until you travel to a country that speaks it. With my strong base of vocabulary and decent listening skills (and despite my limited speaking experience), I was able to access meaningful, interesting interactions from the get-go. My first conversations were, at times, painfully slow but with perseverance and the encouragement and support of my conversation partners, converting my passive knowledge of Spanish into active speaking skills has not taken me long. Now, 8 days in, I’m now in a city called Queretaro on my first Couchsurfing experience. Last night, I stood up to a steady barrage of questions from two curious Mexicans last night with humour and aplomb – A seriously rewarding experience, to say the least!
Without really aiming for it, I’ve aligned myself even further with Steve Kaufmann‘s style of language learning (emphasis on listening and reading). In 2012, he went to Prague and attempted to convert his passive knowledge of Czech to become a fluent speaker in five days. You can watch his Fluency in Five Days vlogs here. He wouldn’t say he became fluent in his five days in Prague, and I wouldn’t say I’ve become completely fluent in eight days here but I think our experiences strongly support our learning methods.
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This post has been a long time in the making as I’ve been really busy traveling (it’s currently Day 18 and I’m in Oaxaca de Juarez) so thanks a lot for reading! If you’d like to contact me leave a comment below, tweet to me at @TimSpricht or write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Click “Follow” at the top right of the page to get me delivered to your inbox.