The cultivation of a new skill is a process – a long, difficult, beautiful process – which is worth the short term (ahem) effort for the long term gains…
…I kindly reminded myself after a particularly stressful encounter at work left me suffering from a familiar bout of self-doubt.
A telephone call for what should have been a simple appointment cancellation left me confused when the (non Spanish) lady on the other end of the line launched into a full-blown telenovela in rápido Español. Identifying the words for “dog”, “kids” and “confinement”, I tried desperately to navigate around the unnecessary details she was bombarding me with, wishing that she would cut to the chase to ensure I understood the main purpose of the call (which was, as suspected, to cancel an appointment).
But before I had time to react, she suddenly switched languages and said (and I’m sure I detected a sigh): “You’re the one who only speaks English right?”
I was outraged.
It wasn’t even strictly true (although, in comparison to my polyglot colleagues then I suppose that narrows it down).To her, it was a simple observation which helped her distinguish between the staff, but it struck a nerve.
Because, this is how you are defined in an international workplace – by the languages you speak, not by the ones you are trying desperately hard to learn.
What she failed to see was the effort being put in behind the scenes to promote me from the “unilingual” category she had placed me in. Somewhere out-with the 40 hour working week, the maintenance of an exercise regime, a social life and a home, between regular and precious contact with family and friends, and the writing of a blog *pauses for breath*, there are the weekly Spanish classes, the attendance of intercambio events, the meetings with native friends, the stressful encounters AND the complicated phone calls to contend with…But this didn’t enter her radar – why would it?
“Ha” I answered, wondering if she herself had emerged from the womb fluent in four idiomas.
But why was I so offended? She was proud of her own linguistic achievements (and deservingly so), as I would be too. Correction: I WILL be too, only I vow to be sympathetic to the efforts of others.
Thoughts that it might be easier just to give up and accept that I have tried but I will never be Spanish and never sound Spanish enter my head frequently. Except this time, I spiralled.
Evidently affected by the remark, I made a quick life assessment, and decided that if I only had a time short time left in this world, the first to be culled from my list of hobbies and pastimes would probably be the learning of Spanish, which is ironic considering the blood, sweat and tears I have poured in so far. But I imagine that being bi-lingual has more use in life than it has beyond the grave…
At the end of the day, what you are left with are experiences and memories. One day, I will remember this beautiful chapter of life, not by the hours spent with my nose in a grammar textbook, but by the quality of life here, made richer only by the effort invested into the adoption of a new culture, the making of friends, the willingness to try new things, and of course, the learning of the language.
Despite having made a choice to dedicate hours, days, years to the latter in order to make life in another country easier, the process requires work. And while it may be 10 years before I allow myself to relax in the sun with a foreign language book (sin highlighter pen) and a celebratory cava, I know it will be worth it.
Because by then, the skill that I will have been cultivating over time will be practised and polished but probably never perfect. And it won’t even matter, not when I will be able to effortlessly navigate my way around the complex bureaucratic system, defend myself if and when required (an important linguistic milestone I am told) and chat freely and fluently with locals.
So, on the days that I confuse my tenses or ignorantly use a ‘n’ instead of an ‘ñ’, I will kindly remind myself that it is not a matter of life or death, and the things I stress about or think are so important have some fresh perspective once more.
One year on, despite writing with a strong focus on my language learning journey, this blog has been more than that. It is a documentation of experiences of life here in España so far – a different kind of cultivation – not just of a new skill, but of memories that have been created, collected and captured. Using the highs and lows of learning a language to mirror the highs and lows of learning a whole new lifestyle is the truest reflection I can offer.
But as long as I am living here in Spain (or living full stop), then I had better crack on.
Because if I stand any chance of shedding the undesirable reputation of being “the one who only speaks English” and impressing my multilingual European associates, then I had better start ripening PRONTO.