SPAIN: Communicating Far from Home

Spain - streettrotter

Embrace and embarrassment — A Travel Story By Mirada Suarez

My father’s side of the family is from Spain, but I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish.  Before a class trip when I was 17, I had never even been to Spain.  So in order to live up to my last name, when I entered high school, I signed up for Spanish class.  I ended up excelling, skipping a full year of instruction and receiving the highest possible scores on my AP exams. My good grades tricked me into thinking I was fluent, and the class trip to Spain didn’t rid me of that illusion like it should have. While we were there, my Spanish teacher insulated me from most Spanish speaking.  She took care of ordering at restaurants and shooing away pickpockets.

But on a recent trip to Spain with my family, it was just me, the Spanish class whiz kid, and my monolingual mother and brother.  I was forced into the role of translator, but I wasn’t worried—my grades, after all, were impeccable.

However, that confidence disappeared in a chilly plaza in Segovia City of Spain, the famous cathedral looming above me as I stared fish-mouthed at a Spanish waiter. My mother wanted to know how her steak would be cooked and turned to me for a translation. But Spanish literature classes don’t include units on how to order steak. I had no idea how to ask the waiter, and he spoke no English. After a few minutes of helpless staring, my mother shook her head and let the waiter go.

The steak arrived medium rare, and, to my mother, inedible. With one exchange, my confidence was shot. An hour prior, I had been congratulating myself on my perfect understanding of our cathedral tour guide. On the way to the cathedral, I had purchased a small clay plot at an artisan market with no difficulties. At our hotel in Madrid that morning, I directed our cab driver to the bus station, feeling fresh and confident for our day trip to Segovia. After Segovia, though, anxiety crept into my mouth and tripped up my tongue, blocked my brain and made me enter conversations only reluctantly.

I discovered that there is an enormous difference between reading and writing in Spanish in an American classroom and speaking Spanish, to Spaniards, in Spain.  In the latter case, there’s no time for calculation. I couldn’t tell a cab driver to wait while I cracked open a Spanish-English dictionary to figure out what he just said.

Every time someone looked at me with incomprehension, or switched to English for my benefit, I tried less and less to communicate.  In doing so, I robbed myself of opportunities to move past those failures.

Spain - streettrotter
Segovia, from the Jewish Quarter

Something Spanish class never taught me is that fluency in a language isn’t based on how many words you know, or how fast you can conjugate a verb.  Fluency is the ability to think on your feet and get by.  To talk around a word if you don’t know the word itself.  To ask, even if it’s embarrassing, repite, por favor.

And yes, you will be embarrassed.  It took me almost until the end of our trip to realize that, when you step into a new language, humiliation is inevitable.  No French student waltzes off the plane straight into a wicker seat at a Parisian boulangerie, ordering wine and foie gras and flirting with the waiter.  Most will stumble into that seat and point desperately at things on the menu, sweating, working up the nerve to speak and cringing when their accent makes the waiter roll his eyes.

The point is to not let that embarrassment hinder you. Nervousness makes you forget what you do know, and prevents you from learning more. Take a deep breath and dive into conversations with as little forethought as possible. The resulting chat will be easier than you think, and more natural than rehearsing your sentences in your head for five minutes before approaching someone.

And remember that even if you perfect your accent and beef up your vocabulary, language goes beyond speech.  Language isn’t based in dictionaries, but in culture, and culture can’t be shoved into your brain with flash cards. 

For example, 21 countries list Spanish as their official language, and many others are unofficially Spanish-speaking (hello, United States). Every single one of those countries uses Spanish in a different way. Accents and slang abound.  You’re not going to become completely familiar with either on a weeklong trip, so make your expectations realistic. Here is a recommendation for some quick automated translation services in times of need. 

No matter what, you are a foreigner; you are a tourist; so embrace it.  You’ll feel freer, and less pressure means that you won’t be overwhelmed by all the things you think you’re saying wrong.  No matter how you sound, everybody is impressed with the tourist who at least attempts to speak the language.  Plus, if people know you’re a tourist, they’ll want to know where you’re from—a great conversation starter.

Spain - streettrotter
A view of Segovia from atop the Cathedral bell tower

By the end of my trip, I fought back against my nerves and had my first real conversation in Spanish, something beyond textbook phrases.  It wasn’t anything glamorous.  In Toledo, I discussed restaurants with our cab driver.  We wanted to check out one we had seen near the Bridge of San Martín, but the cab driver told me the owner had died and it was closed.

Without thinking, without calculating what I wanted to say in advance, I asked him where we could go instead.  He ended up bringing us to two adjacent restaurants, rattling off the pros and cons of each and making sure we were seated at one of them before he drove away.  I felt so proud of myself afterwards that at that restaurant, when I ordered for my family, I only stumbled twice.

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Miranda with her family in Toledo

About the Author: Miranda Suarez is a journalism student and a wannabe Travel Channel host. She appreciates good books and road trips with well-curated soundtracks.  (If you have any music recommendations for a long car ride, she’d love to hear them.) Connect with her on Twitter!