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Do I actually speak Spanish? Part II

Friday, August 5, 2011

"No se puede subir con las maletas." [You can't get on with your luggage.]
"Cómo?  Ok, pero --" [What?  Okay, but --]
"Do you speak English?"
"Hablo español." [I speak Spanish]
"You can't go on with your bags."
"Si, entiendo, pero que puedo hacer entonces?" [Yes, I understand, but then what can I do?]
"Bag to me, please, it goes under boat."
"Y se busca cuando llegamos, cierto?" [And you get it when we arrive, right?]

Here I was last Saturday, getting on the ferry at 7 AM, suddenly told I couldn’t take my bag on board; in my confusion, I betrayed some element of my foreignness, and the conductor switched to English.  Clearly, this person had only good intentions, and moreover, this may have been a rare opportunity for him to practice English, while I get to practice Spanish all day, all year.   Yet this makes me the kind of mad where I could almost cry.  I SPEAK SPANISH!  I AM SURE I SPEAK SPANISH BETTER THAN YOU SPEAK ENGLISH!

When I was in Mexico, I refused to speak English with anyone.  When traveling, my Wellesley friend and I would speak Spanish with each other, and tell people we were Russian or Swedish if anyone tried to speak English with us.  One time, a Mexican friend introduced me to someone, who said excitedly, “Oh great, I can practice English with you!”

“I wouldn’t say that to her, she’ll get mad,” responded my friend.  He was joking, but also kind of serious.  I realized that my adamance about English was a bit selfish, given that my opportunity to study abroad and to live in my target language was, well, a privilege.

Two years later, the learning continues.  Here are some field notes from winter vacation:


People who have asked me if I’m Chilean (with time before they popped the question):

[Note: This doesn’t mean they necessarily thought I actually was Chilean, but at least it was a question worth asking]

  • Airport taxi guys in Santiago (5 minutes) *this was my best yet*
  • grandson of Mignonette, Smith alum (5 words)
  • French Swiss tourists (2 minutes)
  • German tourist (1 minute)
  • Chilean college student next to me on bus (2 minutes) [when I said I live in Palena, he asked me if I was from Palena]

People who have said, “Yes, you speak like a Chilean”:

  • [Argentine] women in line at Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires
  • [Argentine] college professor, Buenos Aires
  • [Chilean] Concepción journalist from Neruda tour

People who have said “But you speak so well…?!” when I reveal my nationality:

  • Chilean girl in Valpo hostel (5 minutes)
  • Spanish girls in Valpo hostel (1 hour)
  • dude at Valpo restaurant (30 minutes) (“Pero hablas perfecto!” — but you speak perfectly!)
  • nephew of my Palena students when we met in Santiago (1 minute)
  • Mignonette (2 days) (“Hablas perfecto” also)

People who have pegged me as a foreigner:

  • waiter in Valdivia (“Chestnut cake… do you know what chestnuts are?”)
  • Dunkin’ Donuts people (I blanked on the word for straw)
  • waiter in pizza place in Valpo (I blanked on the word for funicular)
  • receptionist on phone at Valdivia hotel (And I’ll just need your passport number — you have an international passport, right?)

People I have “let” speak English with me (something I never did in Mexico):

  • waiter at Melbourne cafe in Valpo (lived in Australia for several years)
  • Mignonette & her family
  • people at Happy Hour in Santiago
I’ll admit it, I absolutely love when someone mistakes me for Chilean — if momentarily — and I’ll take any complements on my Spanish I can get, though I always respond to “You speak perfectly!” with something like, “I still have plenty to work on!”  Here’s the thing: I’m not done.  I’m just not.  Sure, my Spanish has improved a ton this year: I understand and use many (most?) Chilenismos, I’ve learned a lot of vocabulary, even my grammar has improved.  And contrary to what we tend to think about living abroad, it’s not in the air — rather, it’s in the work.  I ask questions, I make lists, I practice, I even study conjugations.  And yet… I want so much more.
As one of my good friends who has recently returned to her beloved language (Japanese) said:
ugh it is so weird to have so many feelings about somebody else's language

Why do I care so much?  I took intro Spanish at Smith (ultimately instead of continuing French) because I wanted to be a teacher and thought it would be handy to be able to communicate with my Latino students’ families.  Four years later, I am in my second extended stay in a region that had barely entered my consciousness before college.  I salivate over that map, scheming and dreaming about where to go next.  My interest in Spanish has gone far beyond the practical, particularly in a US context.  Now, I want to be able to navigate regional differences, I want to get every grammar detail right, I want to be able to write and read at the same level as I can in English.

So what next?  For 2012, I’m not sure.  But check out the forecast for this week:

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jane Woodman permalink
    Friday, August 5, 2011 9:16 pm

    The weather report…ARE YOU KIDDING? 30’s? rain and snow? Anyway Little Gringa we’ll do the beach for you here and BRAVO on your Spanish and your passion for it. You can’t go wrong with this, xo.

    • Friday, August 5, 2011 9:50 pm

      I know folks, and let’s remember there’s no central heating. But I’m fine, really — until I read your emails about the beach!

  2. davie permalink
    Friday, August 5, 2011 11:56 pm

    Lets trade weather…. and I am jealous of your foriegn language proficiency… maybe someday ill be fluent in hebrew…. hahahhaha. Anyway much love! miss you.

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