I Am Dumb in Spanish

In The Art of Travel, 2. Communicating, Buenos Aires by Kiana

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.

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