It is extremely lonely to be in a foreign country that speaks another language. Not only can I not communicate with people my age to make friends, but I cannot say the day-to-day things I need when talking to a cashier, a taxi driver, a police officer. Everyday tasks that were habitual and thoughtless in America are now a source of struggle and anxiety. People are not patient, and they are not understanding. After a handful of times of being laughed at in a store or scoffed at for not being able to speak Spanish correctly, you begin to find ways to avoid interaction. I don’t mean to do it, but I do. I hate getting looks that say “stupid American,” and it’s embarrassing to be in a room full of Spanish-speaking people when you cannot understand a sales clerk or a waiter. It’s embarrassing because even though Spanish is not my first language, people hear my rudimentary sentence structure and just assume that I’m stupid. They don’t think, “Oh, she’s just learning how to speak another language, and she doesn’t know how to say much yet.” No, they laugh—and not in a loving, poor-girl-it’s-okay-we-understand way, but in a you’re-an-american-and-you-obviously-don’t-know-any-spanish,-you’re-not-wanted-here kind of way. Not everyone, of course, but a lot of people. A tip from one of my Spanish professors? Just tell them to speak more slowly so that you can understand them, she said. Más despacio, por favor. For asking them to speak more slowly, I get the double prize of a harsh laugh and an eye roll.
I have always felt sorry for people in America who don’t know how to speak English for this very same reason, but now I can truly feel their pain. People in America scoff, and they like to say, “Why don’t they just learn our language?” Well, I have taken up that challenge in another country, and the answer is this: you can’t learn a language overnight, and many of the people around you aren’t going to help you along the way. Many of the people around you are going to make you feel worthless and stupid—many of the people around you are going to try to scam you and take advantage of you. Many of the people around you are going to tell you to go back where you came from, and many of the people around you are going to call you names that they think that you can’t understand.
“So, who cares?” say some people. “Who cares if they think you’re stupid?” Well, that’s a lot easier to say when you’re surrounded by other English-speaking people. That’s a lot easier to say when you’re not completely on your own, without family or friends, without familiar ways of life and social customs, without a place where you can return to at night and recharge your confidence.
Those people are right—you shouldn’t let other people make you feel stupid. But that’s a lot easier said than done.
❝If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.❞*
“Learning a foreign language not only reveals how other societies think and feel, what they have experienced and value, and how they express themselves, it also provides a cultural mirror in which we can more clearly see out own society.”**
‒Chancellor Edward Lee Gorsuch