Will I Ever be Fully Fluent in Spanish?

“Tim, your Spanish vocabulary is better than mine!”

This wasn’t true, wasn’t close to true, but last month I still felt buoyed by the Spaniard’s compliment as I shuffled to the busy Ventas café counter for our next round of drinks. Capcioso was the word I’d just used, that had so impressed my companion. He’d had to look it up in the DLE.

‘You’re getting there, Tim,’ I thought, and gave the order to the waitress. She responded, politely but quickly; a server in a hurry, telling a customer in rapid-fire, native-speaker-to-native-speaker register what he needed to know about picking up the drinks.

The buoy sank.

I hadn’t understood her.  Not at all, not a single word.

This wasn’t an isolated example.

I navigate daily life in Spain much more gracefully than when I posted Polyglot Tips N’ Tricks in early 2018. I chat sociably in Spanish, sometimes for hours, fear the phone less, take in first-run, un-subtitled Spanish movies at the cinema, only occasionally have to research vocabulary before completing errands. But I still contend with an intermittent haze of partial fluency, that dissipates completely in some conversations and then descends in a pea soup fog in interchanges like the one with the waitress. I have adapted to accommodate the unpredictable fog, like one with hearing loss.

These issues must be familiar to others who have emigrated between language domains — from, say, Costa Rica to the U.S., rather than from Costa Rica to Chile. Our taken-for-granted native language skills matter more than we knew.

Before I could walk, talk or even babble, I was surrounded by the communicative utterances of my native tongue, by phonemes and morphemes conveying meaning in English. I logged thousands of waking hours of passive exposure to English before I said my first words, and would continue to be so exposed as I learned to hold a crayon, a cup, a spoon, to tie my shoes. I can fill in the gaps in some slurred, mumbled catchphrases almost instinctively, because I have heard the same catchphrases so many times from other native English speakers.

Advanced language courses may offer little help to a student determined to cross this barrier, and may dwell on matters irrelevant to the exigencies of day-to-day life. One Madrileña lamented that she lost points on a C-level English test for not recognizing wont. Millions of Americans will finish long lives as absolute strangers to wont (as I presume Spaniards have passed on to la Almudena without ever uttering capcioso) … but they understand waitresses who talk to them in restaurants, strangers who give directions, CSRs who tell them what they have to do to get the refund.

A few examples, in MP3 format, variations of experiments I have tried often at in-person language exchanges:

I’ll bet that only native English speakers will understand what I say in the linked .mp3 recordings 1A, 2A, and 3A. Students will make out some words, but mostly will be lost. Intermediate and advanced English students should understand the same paragraphs in versions 1B, 2B, and 3B.

Another example, a song: musician George Thorogood performing a raunchy rock standard, from the 1:16 mark to 1:55.  A native English speaker will note grammar errors, will hear that the lyrics are voiced quickly … but also will understand all the words, without conscious effort. No native Spanish speaker understood more than a few phrases. One had to ask if Thorogood is even speaking English.

I have been masochistic enough to log my personal experiences with these fluency issues. A small sampling:

7/29/2020: A doctor offered a running commentary on what he saw onscreen during a sonogram. He might as well have told me that an eagle is devouring my liver, like Tityus’ in the de Ribera painting. I understood nothing.

12/28/2020: A bank chatbot wanted my NIE number. It was trained to understand native Spanish speakers, not guiris. I tried three times, gave up. (Perhaps a ready made comedy skit for actor Gabino Diego.)

3/5/2021: ¡Cuidado con la mampara! warned the staffer. I would have, if I’d had any idea what a mampara is. I finesse my way through many chats without knowing all the words, but not if the word is key. This one was.

‘But that’s not a bad track record for a foreigner in Spain, Tim,’ you may think.

And you’re right! It’s not. I understand much more than I did even a year ago (largely thanks to my ever-growing collection of made-in-Spain movies), will understand more in 2022 than I do today. I successfully jumped language domains, even though I was pushing forty when I first dared a present tense conjugation of estar.

But these fluency issues still inhibit full assimilation.   Americans regularly talk to each other at the pace of the ‘A’ recordings. Not always, but often enough. Spaniards do, too.

Many members of one U.S. demographic group will effortlessly understand the ‘A’ recordings, and equivalents of the ‘A’ recordings in Spanish, too: the children of Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Mexican immigrants I taught and worked alongside in Los Angeles. I can leaf through old class albums to remember names and faces, or click through online photo galleries of TransitPeople trips past.

I spoke low B1 Spanish when I knew them and envied their fluency, but never thought of them as privileged. Today, I do. The Spanish they grew up with sometimes wasn’t polished, but this post will show why I think that matters much less than childhood exposure to two tongues. Only a few regulars in our online language exchanges belong to this demographic, but their complete fluency in both languages ranks them head and shoulders over most of the rest of us. Command of both languages was a taken-for-granted fait accompli by high school.

Me quito el sombrero, students and colleagues past! I never knew.

2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Hi Tim,
    I have heard a lot more about you than you have of me, I’ll wager, and I’m not a betting person.

    My official name is Mary O’Connor. I am currently the wife of Charles Ganson. My friends (and even some of my enemies) call me Mare. I tell the story that I use a different name than the one I was baptized with because of the large number of girls named Mary in my Catholic high school, in San
    Jose, Ca.

    I am writing in response to your recent blog post, on the subject of learning languages, so I will tell you my story. I was born in Houston. Fortunately, neither of my parents was Texan, though I can give a pretty good imitation of a Texas twang. I was largely taken care of by a woman who spoke Louisiana French and very little English. She couldn’t read or write. So, French was a language I learned along with English.

    When I was eight years old, my family suddenly moved to north-eastern Mexico. My siblings and I learned Spanish in the streets (my parents knew only English). When we were put in Catholic schools in Mexico, my brother and I had a really hard time learning, for example, how to write in Spanish. My sister, who was 3 when we moved there, became fluent immediately. She says that when she was 4, my mother used to take her to the bank, sit her up on the counter, and have her translate bank matters. Neither of my parents learned more than a few words of Spanish during almost 10 years of living on Mexico.

    I had been declared a “native speaker” of Spanish by my high school, and so I had to take French. (I had a terrifying argument with the Mother Superior, who insisted I take Latin. Somehow, I won). So I learned French.

    As an academic, which I sort of am, I know people who claim to speak two or three languages. I doubt that any of them can speak Spanish as well as you do.

    Overall, I think your view of how peaple learn language is a little limited. Although I learned French growing up, I couldn’t remember any of it by the time I got to high school. My sister and her Ecuadorian husband spoke only Spanish to their son, but he ended up taking Spanish in college. I know people who have spent most of their lives in Mexico and have the kind of ability that you despaired of in trying to understand the waitress. I know other people, same circumstances, who can barely order a meal.

    Charles has the idea that there’s a “language gene” which makes some people learn languages easily. I don’t know. I look at my parents, who never learned a foreign language, and I look at my siblings….I think it’s good if you learn a language when you’re young, and I don’t think there’s any agreement on anything else.

    So, I encourage you to continue on your quest for ever better knowledge of Spanish. It never ends.

  2. Thank you for writing, Mare! I chat with many in the online exchanges with unusual language learning histories, and still think your story stands out.

    I used to speak some French, too. Buried somewhere in my noggin are the many years of French I took as a requirement in junior high and high school. The study seemed absolutely irrelevant to me as a California teenager in that era, and I forgot it all.

    I agree with Charles that some learn languages more easily than others. I’ve learned to be patient with myself, to not expect to learn as rapidly as they do.

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