It always irks me when Americans, after spending three whole months in Spain, say they’re forgetting English. How adorable! You’ve spent a total of 90 days here, and you’re already losing your native-language skills.
Or not. Because you’re not. No, really, you aren’t.
That’s why I won’t be claiming anything of the sort. Nope, what I want to talk about is overanalyzing the way you say things. You must know what I’m talking about. Have you ever read or said a word over and over again until it seemed like it wasn’t even a word at all, just a jumble of arbitrary letters and sounds? Let’s try an experiment:
Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. I don’t know about you, but that word is weird. I even had to refer to Google to make sure I wasn’t spelling it wrong. And I was a sixth-grade spelling-bee champion! Squirrel. Ugh, is that even right? Okay, yes. Yes, it is.
As an English-language assistant teacher, my fellow teachers like to ask me how to say certain words or phrases. They like to clarify prepositions. The problem is: sometimes, just with a question, they throw me off. I’m unable to give them a succinct answer, and when I do find a reasonable response, it ends up sounding quite strange to my ears. I think it’s because I mull over the answer too much.
‘In the corner’ or ‘At the corner’?
Well, ummm, you see, they both sound okay.
But when do you use ‘at’ and when do you use ‘in’?
Let me think for the next ten minutes: ‘In the corner’ or ‘At the corner’? ‘In the corner’ or ‘At the corner’? Oh gee, which is it? [Five minutes later, as the teacher stares at me, the English-language teacher who doesn’t know how to explain her own language] … Ah, so it seems we use ‘at’ for ‘at the street corner’ and ‘in’ for ‘in the corner of the room’. I’ve done it! I’ve remembered how my language works.
Kaley, how do you say escalera caracol?
You know, the staircases that are circular, that go around a central point?
Oh, yes, yes! Circular staircase? No, no, that’s not right. That sounds so odd, though I suppose it would be understood. No, it’s definitely something else … [Five minutes later] Oh yes! Spiral staircase.
Um, yes, well … yes, I think so. I’m 90% certain.
I’d like to think I’m more than 90% certain of my English-language skills, but perhaps not. Perhaps I need a refresher course. Or perhaps translation is just difficult. One more example:
Kaley, the students were asking how to say perra [female dog] in English? What would you say, “she dog”?
[Laughs] Um, no, definitely not. [I conjure up the word “she man” in my head] Female dog? No, that sounds a bit like an insult, doesn’t it?
I dunno. Yes? I know you don’t say bitch; that isn’t really appropriate, unless we’re talking about professional dog breeders or the like. Female dog? I know I’ve heard that used as an insult before, but I suppose it doesn’t have to be. So yes, I’ll go with female dog.
Are you sure?
[Am I?] Yes, yes, of course!
I do know how to speak English. But don’t ask me why you can omit the preposition in some sentences. Don’t ask me what the first conditional is. Please don’t ask me to tell you the order for adjectives. (Sidenote: Did you even know this existed? Why is it okay to say the big, red ball, but not the red, big ball?) I speak English, but sometimes I really don’t understand it.