On my plane ride down to the Dominican Republic for my semester abroad, I thought to myself, “I’ve got this Spanish thing down.” I’d taken Spanish since kindergarten, studied a multitude of different tenses and learned hundreds of vocabulary words, yet during my first conversation with a Dominican, I froze. I couldn’t answer the simple question of ‘how are you’?
My brain scrambled to remember the basics from 14 years of Spanish classes, which should have engrained into my mind. I managed to shout back ‘what?’ and when he repeated his question; I succeeded with the simple answer of ‘good’ as my cheeks flushed red with embarrassment.
That’s the hard part about learning a language in a classroom setting; grammar often comes before actual conversation. In high school, the only time we actually listened or spoke Spanish in class was during the respective sections of final exams.
The reality is, conversation is the most important skill to learn in order to understand and respond to someone in their native tongue.
But more than that, it’s about making mistakes. After spending a total of eight weeks in a Spanish-speaking country, my cheeks are permanently red with embarrassment, because my Spanish speaking abilities are poor.
Some moments, like the time I walked around the Mormon Church for two hours telling people welcome (bienvenidos) to their own church instead of good morning (buenosdias), still makes me shake my head in humiliation.
Other moments your friends never let you live it down. I am reminded of walking up to a fruit stand full of confidence to ask the lady if she had any avocados (palta). The look on her face set off every alarm in my head trying to remember what I had said and figure out where it had gone wrong.
Generally speaking, fruit stand owners get a little suspicious and confused when you ask them if they have any money (plata). To deepen my embarrassment, my loyal friend overheard the encounter and laughed loudly behind me.
Making mistakes is the best way to learn. Never again will I welcome people to their own church or forget the word for avocado. The reason children catch onto a new language so quickly is because they repeat what they hear and don’t fret over grammar or stop a conversation to look up a specific word in their dictionary.
There is no easy way to avoid messing up, but when you finally get it right, it’s worth it. The first time I successfully asked a person for directions and got on the right bus home left a smile on my face for hours.
Until the next day. when, after messing up a sentence, I tried to tell the bus driver ‘I’m embarrassed’ but instead informed him I was pregnant (estoy embarasada).
Whether he thought I was blaming a non-existent pregnancy on my inability to answer his question or knew enough English to realize what I was trying to say, I will never know.
I dashed off the bus before the tires stopped rolling not wanting to turn around and acknowledge my extreme language failures.
These stories still make my face burn red but messing up and making a fool of yourself is part of learning a language. If you never speak it, no improvement will be made. Also, now when I look back, I will have amusing stories to share with friends and family.