No Hablo Español, And Why I Need to Stop Saying This

“Why would you come to Spain when you can't even speak our language?” asked my 11-year old student, in straight, aggressive español. This was in the middle of my introduction, and I couldn’t remember if the class had gone silent or if they’d erupted in chaos. I really don’t remember.

My mind went numb, and for a second, I had wondered whether or not I should answer that seriously. A split second later, my musing turned into disbelief, and then inevitably, it turned into frustration.

“I speak English in this classroom because this is English class, and I’m supposed to teach you,” I answered. Some defiance was felt in my tone, though I have to admit, I was just as dumbfounded as I was challenged. “But outside this classroom, I am learning Spanish, too.”

This was how second period went today, and for the rest of the day, the confrontation kept lingering in the back of my head.

I’ve always considered linguistics, and English in particular, as one of my valued skills — a skill that companies paid me good money for, a skill that makes my storytelling (both on this blog and on Youtube) much more effective, and a skill that brought me to Madrid. I always acknowledged and took pride in this gift, and through the years, I have spent much time and energy honing that.

So you can imagine my reaction and, ultimately, my humbling, when a kid questioned my abilities in her language — the language that my new city thrives off of, and the medium with which its majority chooses to communicate. Despite my role as an English language assistant, in that moment, I felt like I was back to square one. My linguistic expertise is back to its infancy, and no, being a balanced bilingual in English and Filipino no longer count. I am in a foreign land, and my tongue is tied.

Huh. Funny how life works out.

Ironically, though, I had just started my first intercambio two days ago, and had met my first private student yesterday. Intercambios are essentially “language exchange” sessions between two people who are fluent in two different languages. In my case, I’ve agreed to meet with my newfound local friend Rafa every Monday, for an hour-long English/Spanish conversation. Our first meeting was a breeze, and by the end of it, I could confidently order deadly drinks. “Dos chupitos de tequila por favor!”

So you see… I am trying. And although I’ve been here a month, with 3 semesters of Spanish in uni, plus an A1 course from Instituto Cervantes under my belt, I’m still a child with the way I handle español. I’m still a clueless kid struggling with conjugaciones and vocabulario. I still get shy and awkward whenever I have to shout, “Waiter! Camarero!”

Much like me, my students must feel the same way, somehow. They may be limited to classroom learning, and they may have the comforts of their hometown and mother tongue, but none of those change the fact that I am still a foreigner, speaking a language some still don’t find value in. And much like me, there was a veil of awkwardness and fear of judgement holding them back.

Bottomline? We all have much to learn.

Now, I look forward to the next 8 months of learning español aggressively, so that one day I can confidently look into my students’ eyes and say, “Lo hice. Puedes hacerlo también.

I did it. You can do it, too.