As I mentioned when I wrote about accepting my own journey, I’ve been going through a bit of a transitional period lately. Recognizing that enough to put it into words that I felt comfortable sharing caused me to do quite a lot of mindful reflection and to practice some self-awareness. It’s also got me thinking about how, despite living abroad in Spain, my life is lived mostly in English. My initial response to that is one of a bit of shame and disappointment in myself, but let me explain my thought process about this topic and how I’m currently feeling.
Note: This post was originally written in the summer of 2018, but the general message still rings true. I’ve made some changes to bring it up-to-date, but the takeaway is the same today.
So here’s the deal…
I’m no longer an online English teacher, but I am a writer and that means that 7+ hours of my day are spent reading, writing, planning, or researching in English. I’m also actively engaged in an English-language writing community online as well as our expat community through this blog’s social accounts. I obviously write these articles and work with Claudia in English. And, on my walks when I listen to podcasts/audiobooks and at the end of the day when I want to unwind and disconnect, I regularly choose English language options (not 100% of the time, but more often than not).
English is my native language, and it is also the native language of my husband. Especially during the uncertain circumstances we’re currently living, we spend a lot of our time at home, together. Although we can both speak Spanish perfectly well, it just doesn’t make sense for us to converse in our non-native language when our relationship is built on our shared, native English.
In the past, at least I had my friendships with Spaniards to bolster my Spanish practice but, since I’m not seeing many people in person these days because of the pandemic, even those interactions are limited mostly to Whatsapp conversations. Whenever I go out to the grocery store or other essential shops, I use my Spanish but, as you can imagine, these are not exactly the most engaging or lengthy conversations. Basically, my life is in English.
Why I’m still okay with that
When you summarize all of these facts, it becomes pretty clear that I could be engaging with Spanish more if I were making the effort. I could just as easily choose to listen to my podcasts and watch TV in Spanish. I could reach out more regularly to Spanish friends and set up video-calls or walks outdoors (since I don’t currently feel comfortable going out to restaurants or meeting at each other’s homes). I could even be speaking only in Spanish with my husband—or Claudia!—to get in more practice. However, none of those choices are my priority right now. Why?
Because I’m thinking about my future:
This may seem like a strange way to put it, but learning and using Spanish has been a priority of mine for over a dozen years. From the ten consecutive years of having at least one Spanish course (and up to five courses taught in Spanish) each year to the four full years I’ve lived in Spanish-speaking countries, I DO believe I’ve invested a great deal in my language skills. It’s okay that I’m letting my grip on that loosen for a bit. Instead, I want to focus on my new career and being a great writer, on building an amazing community here through Sincerely, Spain and through my author account, and being the best partner I can be for my husband. I don’t think it’s wrong to invest in these other important areas that influence my future.
Because I’m investing in my growth:
So many great minds have preached the importance of learning everyday and constantly investing in your own education. While language-learning is a big part of that, it’s not everything and right now I’m deep in the process of getting as much knowledge as I can from podcasts, blogs, videos, and books. I’m proud of all the non-fiction (and fiction!) content I’ve consumed over the last few years. I love listening to a variety of podcast shows and audiobooks while I clean, cook, walk, etc. All of this has helped me reach such important realizations and expand my mind. It’s also lots of fun…despite being just one more way in which I’m filling my life with English.
While I CAN have fun listening in Spanish (and it is something that I occasionally do, such as listening to Gabriela Encina’s podcast Entre Mentes y Mundos, fellow granadino’s podcast Rumbo a tu Vida, and the Colombian women’s podcast Cuarentólogas ) it can become slightly more work for me to listen and think in my non-native language. I will say, it’s not as much work now as it was for me when I originally wrote this post and wasn’t listening to podcasts in Spanish at all, but it’s still a factor I consider.
Because I haven’t really lost those skills:
Despite the fact that my Spanish may not be as polished at the moment, I know that I’ve built myself a strong foundation that I can return to at any time. Even when I was barely engaging in Spanish at all in 2018, I went on vacation with two Spanish friends to visit an American friend and the vast majority of the long weekend was spent in Spanish. While I did feel like I was tripping over my words and making stupid mistakes at the beginning of the weekend, by the second or third day everything was flowing much more fluidly and the fact that everyone was speaking to me in Spanish (despite almost everyone having great English skills as well) was a clear reminder to me that I’ve ‘got this.’ Even my friend’s Spanish coworkers who had lived for years in the US wanted to converse in Spanish, so my skills can’t be that rusty.
Want to know the funny part? As we were trying to translate a message into English for my Spanish friend, neither of us could think of the right word to say de todos modos in English. I finally felt like I’d made a breakthrough and shouted out ‘sin embargo!’—another expression in Spanish. I can still easily get into the mindset of being so immersed in Spanish that my brain is not even differentiating languages. I think that’s pretty cool and something to be proud of!
And finally, because I’m using Spanish in the ways that matter to me most:
I couldn’t say this back in 2018, but for the past year I have been taking online Spanish classes one-to-two times a week on a regular basis. At the beginning, I was working with a number of different teachers on italki and, thus, focusing on different random topics and conversations with all of them. It felt good, in a general way, to be practicing my Spanish again—especially once the pandemic hit and opportunities to engage organically in Spanish conversation grew fewer and fewer for me. However, after about six months, this began to feel a bit empty, as if it wasn’t leading anywhere in particular.
Since then, I started working with just one teacher who is incredibly helpful when it comes to my writing. I haven’t announced this elsewhere yet, but I plan for one of the stories in my next book to be completely in Spanish and so I have painstakingly been working through every line with her each week. It’s a slow process and I wouldn’t say that it’s helping me improve my spoken Spanish at all. However, it’s doing wonders for my vocabulary, my understanding of different registers (informal vs. literary language), and just my enjoyment! By engaging with Spanish in limited, but meaningful-to-me ways, I feel connected to the language in a way that I hadn’t for a long time!
As you can imagine, I sometimes feel a bit insincere when people talk about how amazing it is that I’m so immersed in Spanish on a daily basis when, in reality, most of my days are filled with English. Sometimes it feels like a waste to be living abroad when (especially during current times) I’m not exactly engaging with the local culture or language on the regular. Still, I know that life is made up of seasons and there will always be moments in which I focus more or less on my Spanish speaking.
Besides, I’m proud of myself for just maneuvering these weird times in any language! Sometimes you just need the comforts of your mother tongue and/or the ability to have a deep conversation without having to worry if you’re choosing the right words. I don’t believe it’s fair to judge one’s abroad experience solely on the language they use and I hope you don’t either. Especially if you’ve been hard on yourself lately for living life in your native language, despite residing abroad, I hope that this letter serves as a much-needed reminder to you that you’re doing great things regardless of the language you’re doing them in!