Before moving to Latin America, I had this idea that once I arrived in a Spanish-speaking country, I would learn Spanish by osmosis and that the French I studied in University would magically morph. This could not have been more wrong. When we arrived at the Bogota Airport (albeit, late at night), we could not find one person who spoke English, and I didn’t even know how to say phrases like, “I need” or “I want.” I had been so preoccupied with the logistics of moving and spending time with my family and friends before I moved…I failed to make time for Spanish.
Therefore, my first month as an expat in Colombia was way harder than it had to be. Even trying to buy groceries at first felt impossible; cashiers ask questions like, “Cuantos cuotas?” because here you have the option of paying in installments (even for a $2 coffee). They’ll also ask you for your “puntos,” or your loyalty number. At first, I just panicked and showed it with a blank stare until they gave up and/or wondered if I was from a different planet. When our doorman first spoke to me after getting home from school, I froze and wondered if my apartment had burned down because I left my hair straightener on. I have a very vivid imagination but clearly not much skill for logical inference in these situations; turns out, he just wanted to hand me some mail.
The chaos continued when I decided one Saturday morning to make an appointment for a massage and a facial at a local spa despite my vocabulary being equivalent to a one-year-old's. At this point, I was still subscribing to my naïve osmosis theory; this idea immediately dissolved when the masseuse ripped the blanket off my nearly naked body; I guess I wasn’t supposed to take my clothes off just yet. Moments like these even happened when I was with a translator; after only three weeks here, I discovered a large tumor on the back of my neck. I went to the doctor for an ultrasound test, and my translator mistakenly told me I had lymphoma, you know - cancer of the immune system most common in young adults in their 20s. Thankfully I was in too much shock to react with any form of emotion, so I just kept repeating the word and asking if she was sure because she was telling me so nonchalantly. Turned out, she meant lipoma, a type of benign tumor.
Four months later, my tumor is gone (nothing like waking up from anesthesia to a foreign language) and so is my idea that learning Spanish will be easy just because I’m physically in a Spanish-speaking country. I’ve been taking private lessons twice a week, making flashcards, and watching a lot of YouTube videos (most recently, Gringo Español). I also made the infographic above on 10 tips I need to be doing more of. I know it’s now time for me to get over my anxiety and start having actual conversations with native speakers, despite the fact that I start sweating whenever I do. But, it's time to get over the fear. Especially my fear of embarrassing myself; for example, I was explicitly warned to be careful with the phrase, “Qué pena!” (a common Spanish expression translating to “too bad”). If I mispronounce it, I would end up saying, “What a penis!” It hasn’t happened yet, but I know the universe is saving that error for just the right moment. And when it happens, I will do my best to laugh.
Note: Infographic above made with Piktochart.com, a site that offers user friendly templates to make information beautiful. My students are currently creating them for a grammar project, so I thought I would join in.