Barriers

Sometimes I’m the only one who doesn’t get the joke. Some days I smile, reassuring everyone that I’m not on the outside. Some days I even laugh a little. At other times I just keep my face blank … After all, is there any shame in not getting it? I can’t decide.

I speak fluently, even rapidly. My brother, upon hearing my conversation with my mother-in-law, rolls his eyes and tells me to slow down. I don’t. But when I’m here, I can never speak fast enough. Every error stays in my mind, reminding me that what I thought about myself was wrong. Is wrong. Most do not correct me, but some take it upon themselves—without my permission—to remind me of my errors. When I speak, the words tumble out, seemingly unstoppable in their urgency. I say things I know are wrong in the heat of the moment, just to keep the words flowing, just so my listener doesn’t have to wait five seconds. I can’t bear to make them impatient. I find it insufferable when they correct me, tell me agua is feminine.

“I know,” I mutter to myself. “Why don’t you correct me on something that I actually don’t understand?” But on the outside I am silent.

During the fall semester of my senior year at Indiana University, I met some students from Hong Kong, who were spending a semester in Bloomington, Indiana, of all places. We had so many memories together: dinners in their high-rise apartment building filled with foreign students, watching The Nut Cracker at the IU Auditorium, Thanksgiving in my hometown. When I remember their halting English, I wince to think I should have ever been patronizing to them. It is quite astonishing to recall their level of fluency and willingness to travel to the frigid Midwest, a region not known for diversity or even good weather. Yet there they went, and thus we all made lifelong friends from across the world. I can only hope to have been gracious and welcoming to them, to have never made them feel like they were on the outside looking in. Perhaps that was impossible. I must have tried, though. Can one ever truly feel like a native when the language is foreign? I can’t say. It hasn’t been my experience.

In high school, a schoolmate made a joke about someone’s mother’s broken English. I didn’t laugh, certainly not, but neither did I say anything, and I certainly could not understand what my classmate felt at hearing her mother held up as an object of ridicule. Even now, after five years as the foreigner in the crowd, I only have the smallest grasp on what that feels like—to be somewhere, to be the perpetual outsider. A small language barrier is still a barrier.

Most of my peers will never feel like outsiders. They will always live in a place where their first language is the language, and if they do travel, English is and probably will be the lingua franca, at least for the foreseeable future. To speak English is to have the world in your hands, to know that wherever you go, all you have to do is walk up to the counter and say, “English, please?”

How Speaking Spanish Influences My English

I was having a conversation the other day with Mario—in English this time. (It varies.) We were talking about my trip out west and an animal I encountered along the way: a chipmunk. In Spanish, the word for chipmunk and squirrel is the same—la ardilla. Note the article. It’s feminine. So, I was talking, and I said, “He had a mouth full of twigs. It was so cute!” And Mario replied, “I think you mean she. It’s la ardilla, after all.” Of course, he was halfway joking, but it still made me laugh. It made me think too. It’s so funny how learning Spanish has helped me understand my own languages: the quirks, the interesting word origins (etymology is so fascinating!), and just grammar in general. Guys, we do have a subjunctive tense in English. So pay attention.

Tamias striatus

The Whole Gender Thing

In Mario’s worldview, all animals with a female article should be referred to as females. I once called a snake a “he.” I don’t know why; it just came out. But nooooo, he insisted, snakes were shes. Same goes for la cigüeña (the stork) or la nutria (the otter). It made me wonder why, in English, we refer to cars and boats as she and most animals as he (until we know better).

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Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It?

Short answer: It depends on what you mean by “worth it.”

Freakonomics (one of my podcast favorites) recently did a short show on the merits of learning a foreign language. Most of the foreigners in Spain whom I know would argue that learning a foreign language is indeed quite beneficial. We are always posting articles on the benefits of bilingualism. There are myriad other reasons too: you become smarter, you know your native language better, you stave off Alzheimer’s and dementia, your memory improves, you become more perceptive … In short, the benefits are endless.

But what about financial benefits?

 

78568751Source: Getty Images

Freakonomics talks to Albert Saíz, a Spanish (Catalonian) professor of economics who specializes in immigration. He wrote a paper titled Listening to What the World Says: Bilingualism and Earnings in the United States. Saíz wanted to figure out just how much a person can gain (future earnings) by knowing a foreign language. He talked to 9,000 college grads about how their knowledge of a foreign language had affected their wages. Here’s what he had to say:

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Teaching English; Forgetting English

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.

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