Language Struggles

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February 3rd 2016
Published: February 3rd 2016
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Disclaimer: this one is more about the un-glamorous side of living abroad.

I got a haircut this morning. Haircuts are stressful to begin with, and add in a foreign country and non-native language, and you’re flirting with true disaster. Hahaha, not really, but in Korea once, I intended to get a new look, and I ended up with a slight bit of bangs and no other change to my hair. This time, I actually meant to get the haircut on Monday, but either due to miscommunication or the lady truly having a totally full schedule, I ended up making an appointment for this morning (Wednesday) instead.

Sure, I was able to schedule the appointment, and generally express, with the help of a picture and pre-learned key vocabulary, my desired haircut. Yes, those things made me feel confident about my language abilities. But, when I needed to say, ‘I want it to look a bit choppier’, or ‘I want it dried ‘naturally’, without a lot of curls but also not too straight’, I was at a bit of a loss. It turned out fine. Hopefully tomorrow it will also look okay when all I do is brush it?

The haircut highlights the dichotomy of trying to speak a foreign language. Sure, I can ‘get through’ conversations, but when I really need to be precise, I have issues. Language learning for me has really been a challenge. I came here expecting that after 8 months I would essentially be conversationally fluent in Spanish, and I’ve come to realize it’s not a realistic expectation. Not only that, but that perhaps even if I stayed here 4 years, not much would change. And it may seem pessimistic to say that, but there are just a never-ending amount of words to learn, ways to conceptualize ideas, and different feelings to words than in my native language.

It certainly doesn’t help that I’ve been much less surrounded by Spanish than I expected. My job is based on my speaking English, and at school, unless people are speaking to me, generally they speak Galician. I haven’t made any Galician/Spanish friends. The main people I speak Spanish with are my intercambio (language exchange) partners and my roommates, occasionally.

My roommates (unfortunately?) all speak English really well, which facilitates my speaking English at home. The real challenge of that is not that I’m lazy—it’s that I’m too considerate. That if there’s something that would take me 2 minutes to express in Spanish, but 20 seconds in English, and I know that they will understand in English, I won’t push their patience by speaking in Spanish. It’s also that when they speak Spanish, I can usually get the topic, but not much more than that. Overall, I feel like speaking Spanish takes away a big part of my being. By being unable to participate in conversations and fully express myself, I feel like I’m trapped. My personality can’t come out. That is the true difficulty for me, I think.

I’m certainly not saying I haven’t learned anything. I’ve come a long way with understanding more. I’ve improved with certain past tense phrases, and I’ve learned some other phrases. I can speak more fluently for sure, depending on the topic. I’ve gotten better at clarifying if I don’t understand when someone is saying something to me. With my students, I can generally express myself in Spanish (instructions, translations of vocab, calling kids out for bad behavior), and about three-quarters of the time I get the gist of what they’re saying, although to be fair, sometimes they speak to me in Galician. There’s just so much to learn, and my brain often doesn’t seem able to hold it all!

Needless to say, I’ve been thinking a lot about my former refugee clients and English students in Pittsburgh. I’ve had so many advantages in moving here and attempting to speak Spanish—not just with the language, but with the transition to a new country. Spanish-wise, I had classes when I was younger. I’m literate, and I have lots of tools/skills to teach myself Spanish. English and Spanish share a lot of word-roots. If concepts I’m trying to express are a bit more theoretical, I can sometimes guess the word, based on English (system: sistema; theme: tema; illegal: ilegal, etc.).

Support-wise, I have great roommates who are also friends. I’ve lived abroad before, and my education and class have allowed me to be exposed to different cultures. I chose my job and my apartment here. I can find most of the food I’m used to eating in the US. The culture here is relatively similar to culture in the US. I have internet and can talk to almost anyone I’d want to anywhere in the world with Skype and Whatsapp. I also know I’m not staying here forever.

Despite all the privileges I’ve had, this transition and attempt at language learning has been really difficult, much more difficult than any of my other moves. Coming to Spain has allowed me to gain even more respect for the resilience of the people I’ve worked with in Pittsburgh. Some come alone, some come with families, some come knowing no English, and some come with intermediate English. They come with hopes for the future, or at least to leave something in the past behind. And, for sure, they go through lots of periods of boredom, loneliness, homesickness, and struggles with language as well. Many of them have no place to return to.

Want to help support a refugee or immigrant in language learning, cultural awareness, or social support? Pittsburgh has four refugee resettlement agencies, as well as a network of organizations supporting immigrants and internationals. Leave a comment or send me a message if you want more info (about Pittsburgh—I don’t know much about other places)!


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