Some days I feel completely fluent in Spanish, I’ll walk away from a conversation and think “Wow, I just said everything that came to mind and the other person got my drift.” Other days I sit at the kitchen table with my host family and can’t form a coherent sentence. It recently dawned on me that my Spanish skills can be compared to my high school tennis skills. How’s that for a comparison? If I were matched up against someone really good and I had to be quick, I played so much better. When I would play someone at my level or lower, I was terrible. For my Spanish, when I’m talking about something I really know about, I just say what comes to mind and the words just seem to flow (almost). But, small talk or explaining things in passing? I feel completely hopeless.
I spend a lot of time with English in my head. I communicate with friends and family back home, I watch episodes of Sex & The City when I’ve had a bad day, I write posts on here, I see the other volunteers near my site probably too much, and my job is to speak English. How can I expect to learn a foreign language when I have so much interference from my first language? It is a constant balance for me. Living and functioning in a foreign country is no easy task. In fact, I can safely say at this point that it is the hardest thing I’ve ever voluntarily put myself through. So on days when, despite my best efforts, I still get gringa-priced for a cab or hear whistles and inappropriate comments thrown my way as I walk down the street, ALL I want to do is lose myself in a good English conversation or an old episode of SATC.
I recently thought about a friend I had during college who didn’t know a word of English before arriving and after 2 years was completely fluent. How did she do it I wondered? One, she didn’t have anybody to speak her native language with in the States. Two, the only TV shows she could watch were in English. And three, she didn’t have random people asking her to tutor their child, granddaughter, niece, nephew, friend, neighbor, pet dog, etc. in her native language. I’m definitely not putting the blame for my language frustration on the fact that my native language is English (I chose to be an English teacher in a foreign country and I could easily watch SATC dubbed and see less of the volunteers near me). However, I do think it creates some interesting challenges for a native English speaker when they travel to a foreign country and try to learn the local language. Its no secret that English is a language spoken throughout the world. People in many countries associate the ability to speak English with opportunities for advancement in some way and because of this, a whole industry has arisen for native English speakers to teach abroad. (That would be me.)
The thing that sums it up I think is that I’m not forced to be completely immersed in a foreign language so therefore I don’t push myself to be surrounded by Spanish all the time. I live in a pretty small town where I’m fairly sure I’m the only foreigner walking around, in a country where English is by no means spoken by even a minority. However, in my small town, I live with a woman who’s daughter lives in the States, I work in a school with 6 English teachers who can communicate at a basic level at the very least, I hear music in English on my 30-minute bus ride to visit my two native English-speaking friends who are here for the same reasons I am…to teach English in a foreign country.
What would it be like if I moved to a foreign country and no one spoke my language or had a desire to learn it? If I had no access to my external hard drive full of movies/TV shows in English and I didn’t have internet to chat it up via facebook or skype? Would I pick up the local language at rocket speed? I might never know.
Note: As a native English-speaker I never learned proper comma placement, sorry if this fact is annoying. : /