“How’s your Spanish?,” friends ask me, “Are you getting fluent?,” and I don’t know how to answer because one minute I’m translating a dense legal document and the next I can’t understand someone asking me for the time.
There are things I love about Spanish, and in my best moments, it rolls out of my mouth. Most often, however, my speech is stilted and strange and scattered with, “Can you repeat that?”s, and strange Spanglish constructions like, “Fue como, like, supercool.”
I was excited, in the beginning, to be surrounded completely by the language I was learning. I spoke Spanish even with North American colleagues, stayed up late watching Spanish movies and listening to Spanish music and begged my housemates to teach me new Honduran slang.
It’s in the last week that I began to miss English fiercely. I crave its round sounds and ridiculous clusters of letters, its depth and delightful preciseness. I miss more than the ability to communicate – I miss the tools of my trade. I had always prided myself on writing and speaking well, and suddenly I was handed different tools to use; they felt cumbersome and did not fit well in my hands.
I love Spanish in the mouths of other people, but in my mouth it still feels strange and ungainly. I know how words are supposed to sound, but I can’t quite form them. I forget important words just as I need to use them. I can ask directions and order food but I lack the words to express new insights, dreams, and passions – I still pray in English.
I have never been good at the sort of light small-talk one shares with coworkers and acquaintances, and in Spanish I am even worse. I can ask a specific question about a chart on a report, but my tongue goes into knots when someone asks about my weekend. I am quieter here.
In English I was always the student in the front row with her hand up. If a thought came into my head, it would burn on my tongue until I had said it. I would fidget, sometimes, with the weight of my thoughts. It was as if they didn’t exist until I had spoken them aloud. I thought quickly, often out loud, talking over and around others and seizing on debates.
I can’t do that in Spanish. I listen more, nod in silence more, laugh more at other people’s jokes. I am in a position of learning, not sharing, and passive reception. I do not set the stage. This can be frustrating to me, maddening, even, but it is humbling, and that humbleness is good.
The other day I was speaking to a friend about my frustrations, and she said, in Spanish, “Don’t worry, you already speak bastante,” “Bastante” means “enough,” but also “more than enough, a lot,” and even in my worst moments that’s true. I don’t speak fluent Spanish or perfect Spanish, but I speak bastante Spanish, enough to understand and be understood – enough to start.