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?