By Published On: March 12, 2006Categories: Language3 Comments on Communicación

He was Colombian so presumably was speaking spanish, but it could have been Aymara to me. I was on a conference call with campaigners from various Andean nations and was straining through a crackly stream of sounds to make out what people were saying.

Fortunately my Bolivian boss was there, so I started day-dreaming letting the mergedrushofwords wash over me. Then Pablo’s mobile rang and he walked out of the office leaving me nervously alone with the machine on speaker-phone.

"¿Y que es tu posición, Bolivia?… Bolivia?!"
"…ehh, mmm, bueno, pues… (SHIT!!!! What were they talking about?). I awkwardly stumbled out a few glib generalisations. I felt like a toddler who had been put on as a key speaker in a seminar panel of university lecturers.

I imagined that after a year I would be completely fluent in Spanish, delivering inspiring talks in workshops, recounting witty, sharp anecdotes in bars to Bolivian friends, reading post-modern spanish poetry for fun in my spare time and confusing Bolivians by sounding so local whilst retaining such pasty-white skin.

Yet sadly, one year I still feel miles off.

On the surface, you wouldn’t guess it. Visitors remark on how fluent I am as I chat away to people or translate what someone is saying at an event and on TV.  Taxi-drivers invariably say "Oooh, you speak excellent spanish." And at times, I forget that I am speaking spanish and almost feel that it’s my language when without effort I follow a whole discussion and seminar on trade preferences, gossip with friends or outline a possible press strategy at a work meeting.

Then suddenly someone can crack a joke or make a passing remark to a colleague and I understand nothing. I feel cut off, excluded.

I thought that language was something that clicked and then it was just a question of learning certain grammatical constructions and more vocabulary. But in reality the stages are based not on linguistic constructions but situations.

When I arrived, I would be exhausted after just an hour of communicating whilst reading newspapers phased me. Then I could communicate one-to-one, but couldn’t follow other conversations or talks. Later I started being able to chat in a group. Soon after I started to lose fear of phone-calls or of sending emails in spanish, began to understand TV programmes, to skim-read newspapers. The big breakthrough was getting jokes which almost completely bypassed me for the first 9 months.

One year on, I can comfortably read, listen and speak in most situations. But I can still be thrown by an unfamiliar accent, a slangy phrase, poetry and literature of almost any kind, or a certain topic of conversation with a group of Bolivians. I can be in the middle of telling a story and suddenly stumble against a wall as I forget how to express something. 

But I think worse than those linguistic short-circuits is a feeling that without full grasp of Spanish that I have become a softened-version of myself. It’s like the edges of my character have become a little blurred.

I notice it when I meet up with other gringos and suddenly find an ease of communicating that is still lacking with my Bolivian friends. The ability to respond quickly to a remark, tell stories exactly as you mean them, switch off and then still rejoin a conversation, to exude a  certain type of confidence. 

I feel that the lack of complete control of Spanish has put restraints on the depths of my friendships with Bolivians because the Spanish ME isn’t quite ME. In these moments I realise that language isn’t just a means of communication but actually ME. And then I wonder if I have not quite been myself for the last year, who might I have become?



  1. alex mitrani March 27, 2006 at 7:05 pm - Reply

    I think I know what you mean. Sounds like you’ve made a lot of progress in the year, though. I get quite a lot of practice, and still feel like I have a lot of work to do. I said something the other day that got me accused of having a “conservative mentality”, something I doubt would have happened had I been communicating in my own language. I find that I think slower in Spanish. This can be good and bad; sometimes having something to slow me down can keep me out of trouble… Like riding a bicicle on a busy road, you know you’ve got to be extra careful. That said, I’m a lot happier now with my ability to communicate than I was a year ago, and it makes life easier and more enjoyable. What’s not so good is that I find that although I’ve learnt a lot, I’ve also got lazier as I’ve got enough under my belt not to need to worry about learning all the time.

  2. Emma April 27, 2006 at 5:59 pm - Reply

    I know exactly what you mean. I think I can safely say I speak pretty fluid kochalo, there are always moments when you have to interrupt a great conversation and feel like an idiot saying ‘Que?’
    Changing register is also a problem for me. When I’m writing reports or speaking with someone in a situation that’s a bit more formal I have to make an effort to stop the uta, pués, ches and que macana’s tumbling out of my mouth.
    I also find it most frustrating that my Spanish is apt to fail me when I’m in the middle of a really intense conversation late at night, trying to express complicated ideas when I’m tired.
    The thing I missed most when I first arrived was being able to eavesdrop. That’s a terrible debility for an anthropologist. Thankfully my nosying skills are back up to speed now, although I am, like you, thrown by accents. I went to see a Peruvian film the other week (Día Sin Sexo, terrible, wouldn’t recommend it), and I could hardly understand a word. I have to make an effort when I’m talking to my Colombian friends in the UK on the phone, too.
    Have you seen those Entel ads that are everywhere with the Bolivians in foreign countries answering their phones and reverting to Bolivian slang? re chistoso…

  3. Kristine October 20, 2006 at 7:36 am - Reply

    From my own experience I can say that in every language that we speak we “obtain” and create a slightly different personality. Just as people were commenting- each language has a certain flow, like in italian- you almost have to sing, and change your pitches very rapidly. And actually, I have quite enjoyed these slight transformations. 🙂 I find it amazing though how in English (not my mother tongue as you probably have guessed from imperfectness of it in this comment) I seem to be more “me” than in my mother tongue.. .

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