Confessions,  Language Learning

Confessions: I don’t always have all the right words

Dear Krissy,

You would think that after years of living, studying, and working in a country, eventually speaking the language there would feel as normal as speaking your mother tongue. However, I must confess that even though I lived abroad in Spain for years, there are still moments when I forget how to say something in Spanish and others when I wonder if I ever knew how to say it. Now that I live in Finland, where my life is primarily in English (although, slowly but surely, I am trying to learn some Finnish), these moments of uncertainty of how to say things in Spanish happen more frequently. This is both natural but frustrating as I think back to how I used to live my life in Spanish and, looking back, it feels like speaking the language was easier then.

At the same time, even before I decided to move abroad to Finland, I still had my days or moments when communicating in Spanish was hard. It is a lot of work to become truly fluent in a language and to communicate in it consistently on a regular basis. Once you get to the point of being fluent, though, you expect it to be all downhill; like once you’ve managed to learn it, everything will just flow easily. In my experience, while it does get easier, you never truly stop learning a language, especially your non-native language. And sometimes it feels like five year old children around you can speak better than you can, which can be both motivating and frustrating.

In addition, there is something about continuously speaking a foreign language that actually takes a lot of work and living in Spanish (or any language that is not your own) can be quite tiring. Even though I consider myself to be fluent, that doesn’t mean that I speak perfectly by any measure and I often make small mistakes. I’ve also noticed that while I might not mix up words in every conversation, sometimes I can make several big mistakes over the course of an hour. I also find that sometimes the conversations just seem to flow, even if I am constantly making mistakes, but sometimes it is also a start-and-stop affair. All this leads me to wholeheartedly believe that it is perfectly fine to not always have the right words. In the examples below, you will find the times when my language skills most frustrate me because I am making more mistakes. If you feel the same, please know that you are not alone and that we are all parallel journeys:

1.) When you talk about something specific

I studied many theoretical things at university and I can probably talk about them for hours with you in Spanish. However, if you would ask me to discuss some of the same ideas in English, that might be difficult for me because I have been primarily exposed to them in Spanish. The same goes vice-versa but I feel like it happens on a much more intense level because English is my native language so I am much more accustomed to picking up things in this language. This means that things I hear while only half listening are much more likely to stick in my head in English and it has to be a more active listen if I want to remember them in Spanish.

This has led me to notice that I often miss the right words and sentence structure when I am talking to friends about things that I haven’t studied or read about or discussed previously in Spanish. In these situations I often sift through all the words in my head and try to come up with something that might fit or ways to describe an idea or a thing (this is one of my favorite ways of getting around the idea of not having the right words). Simply transitioning from English to Spanish is only easy when I know the subject in both languages. In other scenarios, I find that I have to make do with the words that I do have and the general knowledge of similar or relatable subjects in Spanish.

For example: One thing that will throw me off is book or movie titles because they can change drastically from English to Spanish and simply translating or describing them might not be enough.

2.) When you talk about something random

In addition to talking about specific things, another area that is a bit difficult for me is when I am talking about something random, that I might not know much about but have a vague idea of. Many of the random pieces of knowledge I picked up as a kid or learned now from talking with people are ideas that only exist in my brain in one language. In these cases I often find that I will be going along in Spanish talking about something and then I will just draw a complete blank—I won’t be able to remember the word in English or Spanish. In these cases, I usually laugh and try to describe what I am talking about but that can be difficult because I don’t tend to know the subject matter very well.

This is also difficult when the other person knows a lot more about the subject than you do and you are constantly asking them to explain to you what might be quite simple terms in their mind. Speaking around ideas is easier when you are fluent because you are able to describe them but it doesn’t necessarily make you feel like you are speaking the language well. Instead, I often feel like I am bumbling along, hoping for the best with the little information I have. In addition, oftentimes, when I am told what a word is or what something means, because I feel that the subject is random or not something I am super interested in, the information can slip right back out of my mind, leaving me in the same situation I was previously.

For example: I will probably never be great at talking about bike parts in Spanish because I am just not that knowledgeable about them in general so I will constantly describe them, be told the name, and forget.

3.) When you are tired

Like I mentioned previously, living in your non-native language is tiring in general, so, if you are already tired that makes it more difficult to continue to process in that language. I am not saying it is not impossible and I have had many tired (or drunk) conversations in Spanish. What I would say though is that I am much more likely to forget words or use them improperly, which is also frustrating both for me and the person I am talking to. These days, when I have not been speaking Spanish as my main language on a regular basis, I find that when I am tired it is also much harder to switch from English as the flow just isn’t there as easily.

I do think that the more you practice, the easier it is to continue speaking your non-native language when you are tired but there are moments that you will want to give your mind a break. It is in these moments that I am probably most envious of children who have been raised bilingual because they already have all the coping mechanisms in place to constantly switch between languages. What I would recommend, if you feel like your language skills are failing you when you are tired, is to give yourself a break when you can because our brains all need a break sometimes.

For example: When I would take my exams in Spanish I would have to take sugar (in the form of candy) with me to the exams because my brain would just get so tired it would stop functioning without a constant influx of sugar to keep me going.

4.) When you are talking with someone who you don’t know or are uncomfortable

I guess the alternative here is that you are talking with someone who you do know and that makes life so much easier because when you know someone they will understand you better. I find this to be especially true with my close Spanish speaking friends—they can sometimes understand me even when I am speaking nonsense just because they know how I speak. When you are meeting someone new, however, there are so many factors to take into account: that person doesn’t know your accent, doesn’t know how you tend to create sentences, doesn’t know the words you use, etc. This can make things difficult for someone else to understand you and cause him or her to ask you questions that can make you stumble.

I also believe that when you are talking to someone you know, you are more comfortable. In my case, this allows the conversation to flow more naturally because I am not worried that the other person is going to judge me or think that I am an idiot because I forgot a word or didn’t use the right grammar or even mispronounced something. In contrast, if I am in a situation where I don’t really know the other person or I am uncomfortable, I definitely feel more stress about saying things right and I think that I am more likely to not say things as well as I would like.

For example: I was one time in class and didn’t know the translation for USSR. I tried to go around it but the teacher picked up on me not knowing and kind of made fun of me. This made it even harder to keep going with my train of thought and find the right words as I continued.

5.) When it has been a long time

After living outside of a Spanish speaking country for over two years now (and not traveling back because of the current situation), I definitely feel like my words fail me more often than ever before. Language learning is a skill and, like most skills, if you are not practicing it regularly, it will get weaker on you. I don’t believe that I will forget Spanish any time in the near future because it is something that is still quite integrated into my life with things like talking to friends on a weekly basis or seeing posts on social media. In addition, sometimes I read books, watch movies, or listen to podcasts in Spanish. I don’t look for it actively as a way to keep up my Spanish skills but I am not afraid to live parts of my life in Spanish because I have done that before.

However, when I get on a call with my friends back in Spain, these days it is perfectly plausible that I forget the words that used to come easy to me. Luckily, in these situations, I am very comfortable with the person I am speaking to and I can honestly ponder out loud if I even know how to say a certain word or talk about a certain idea in Spanish. However, if I were to go back to Spain this week and have to do something formal with immigration officials, for example, I could easily imagine that I would be at a loss for words more than once and conversations that used to flow naturally would take a bit more energy.

For example: This is something I feel much stronger in Portuguese because I don’t practice as much and was probably never as fluent as I am in Spanish and it always takes me a day or two to get back into the language if I go visit a Portugues speaking place.

What is your experience with speaking in a foreign language? I am especially interested if you, like me, consider yourself to be fluent but still face regular difficulties when it comes to always having the right words. I don’t think it is a problem, per se, but it can feel frustrating when things don’t flow as you would have liked.


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