I Am Dumb in Spanish

In The Art of Travel Fall 2017, 2. Communicating, Buenos Aires by Kiana2 Comments

There is one way I feel that I can accurately describe my experience thus far with the language barrier. It’s a Monday morning in Spanish class, and I’m explaining the spread of neoliberalism in post World War II Latin American nations. One hour later, I’m in a nail salon, and all I’m able to spit out is “hola….. nails..?” It’s a matter of principle versus practice. Right, so I should be able to talk my way through Buenos Aires in a range of discussion topics, but there’s something about rudimentary, basic, useful Spanish that I just can’t seem to handle. Also- people don’t speak Spanish here. In fact, according to my host family, most Latin Americans don’t. Instead, the official language is Castellano, and particularly in Argentina, the form is replaced with vos. Essentially, completely disregard my eight years of studying Spanish. I do not speak the language here.

Luckily and unluckily, most people I interact with speak here English. Even when someone says they have terrible English, I never have a hard time understanding them. This safety net has been crucial in the majority of my day-to-day interactions, but it doesn’t help my omnipresent feeling of defeat when I can’t order a coffee successfully. I fully intend on coming back to the US fluent in Castellano, so I always do my best to not make it obvious that I am American, and my country has imposed its’ language on most of the world. It’s hard! On one of the first days of our orientation, we discussed the biases of language, and the inherent dominance English seems to have most on places in the world. With the romantic languages, there’s at least a little effort to say ‘thank you’, or ‘how are you’ in the national language, but when I was in Prague, for example, I am regretful to admit that I tried to speak the language zero times. Everyone I encountered automatically spoke in great English, so I accepted the norm without protest. It seemed easier for everyone that I did, and I resented that. How come when foreigners come to our supposed melting pot of a culture, they are expected to immediately conform, but when we travel to their homes, the American language bias remains the same? I and most of the Americans I know have a habit of complaining about the xenophobic nature of our country and its’ current administration, but it doesn’t seem to me that we are doing all we can to reverse this stereotype. I’m speaking on a macro level, but just in my personal interactions, I get frustrated that it’s so normal for a local citizen to speak in my language to make things easier for me in their country. That’s my language rant.

If I find myself in a conversation with no overlap in understanding, I have the Spanishdict app on my phone, but I haven’t had to use it very much. In addition, many of my friends are considerably more fluent then I. More often than not, it’s the speed at which Porteños speak that confuses me. The language here is so lovely and fluid; melodic. I love listening, but the moment my mind wanders even the slightest bit, I’ve compromised my comprehension on the entire conversation. Sometimes I just keep nodding and smiling even after I’ve lost the trail. A reality I’ve come to terms with is that I am simply not as smart in Castellano. I have the same thought process and opinions, but I can’t form them verbally. My contribution to discussion is limited to the simple sentence structure and vocabulary I possess.

I did have one funny encounter this past week. In the midst of a conversation in English with an Italian exchange student also here for the semester, he stopped me to point out how “looooong” my “wooooords” were. Although he had grown up learning English, it was hard for him to understand me, because he had learned British English. I tried speaking to him with the best english accent I could manage, and he understood me perfectly! Never have I had to use a fake accent for actual utility. Very odd.


  1. Hi Kiana,

    I definitely relate to this! I arrived in Prague prepared to challenge myself and learn a new language, or at least enough to handle the basic interactions of daily life, but the people here are often so fluent in English that I end up feeling awkward trying to push out a few words of Czech, like I’m wasting their time and energy by sounding stupid instead of making an effort to integrate myself into the culture. While this makes things a lot easier for me, I always feel a little dissatisfied with how American I am here. I don’t want to emerge from this journey the exact same as I was before.
    I also really agree with your comment about listening to other people speak their languages. I always find it fascinating how quickly obscurity can shift into understanding once one learns even just the rudiments of a language, but more importantly, becomes accustomed to the rhythm of a language and just the way it sounds. One of the hardest part is just discerning where one word ends and the next one begins. That also makes it really interesting that the exchange student you met only understands English well in a British accent. It underlines a disparity in the accents that native speakers tend not to notice because we are so used to it. I think both learning a new language and talking to people who are trying to learn our own language can help us discover new facets of our languages that we would otherwise be oblivious to. It’s definitely a very interesting experience!

  2. Hi Kiana,

    I can definitely relate to your experience based on the 6 months I spent in Paris last year. While I had taken French in school previously and attended a crash course for 6 weeks prior to attending school there, my French left much to be desired. However, I can say that over time my comprehension skills improved especially in areas, where I went to the same type of event repeatedly, such as yoga. Also, I definitely got used to the speed of conversation over time and could generally understand almost everything that wasn’t extremely technical in nature, so I would implore you not to lose heart. However, I also do recognize that my French oral skills did not progress much because of the problem you highlight. I think in my whole time in Paris, I almost never actually spoke French because people could generally understand English, which in hindsight was probably not the best thing for my education.

Leave a Comment