Despite having over a month of Spanish grammar class under my belt, Madrileños seem to be able to detect, rapidly and accurately, the fact that I am an un-seasoned Spanish-speaker. Although I believe I am proficient in Spanish “food” and “dining” vocabulary, I still struggle to place an order without creating mass confusion for both the waiter and myself. In almost any attempt I make to speak the local language, in shops, in the metro, at the gym, etc., with a sympathetic look, my conversational partner will swiftly respond to me in English.
While I am grateful to be assisted by concerned, English-speaking Madrileños, after a slew of failed attempts to pass as a functioning Spanish speaking-local, I’ve been feeling rather defeated. Whenever I feel that my Spanish-speaking skills are finally beginning to strengthen, a major language-barrier roadblock seems to miraculously appear out of thin air and instantly destroy any sense of lingual confidence I may have acquired. On a recent commute to the program center, I tuned into a quiet conversation between two young women sitting next to me on the metro. For the first couple of seconds I spent eavesdropping, I was astonished by my extraordinary ability to comprehend the fast-paced conversation, word for word. However, to my dismay, I soon realized that the women were, in fact, speaking in English. This was a real blow to my Spanish-speaking esteem.
Another eyesore on my 8-year career as a Spanish student occurred more than three weeks into my stay while eating dinner with my patient and kind host parents, Pedro and Paula. After almost a month of being under the impression that I was successfully answering the classic conversational question: “¿Cómo estás?”, my mother broke some devastating news to me. My typical response: “Estoy buena”, which I believed to have meant: “I am well”, turned out to mean something completely different. For three weeks, I had been informing my host family: “I am good (enough to eat)”, blindly paying myself a strange sexual compliment. This was truly a low-point in my career. Since the incident, I have been working hard at remembering to use the less offensive phrase: “Estoy bien” to communicate my state of well being to others.
Although these moments of lingual misunderstanding have been uncomfortable and discouraging, I have come to the realization that all of the mortifying mistakes will ultimately be to my benefit. In a desperate attempt to escape any form of language-deficiency-related embarrassment, I have been driven to focus on strengthening and expanding my knowledge of Spanish vocabulary, grammar, and colloquial expressions. Although I have yet to feel as if I have reaped the benefits of my efforts, through continuing to learn and make mistakes, I believe that it is only a matter of time before I will find myself successfully engaging in intermediate-level Spanish conversation with members of the Madrid community. As my host father often says to me, ‘Poco a poco’, or, little by little.