Learning the Language

Halfway between the kitchen and hallway of Spanish AirBnB #2/#4 (we had to make a hasty getaway from smelly AirBnB #3), Zoriah, my Spanish mother, has set up an ironing board so I can smooth this week’s work outfits after their long stay in my suitcase. She fixes dinner while I iron and we talk about the ironing board—where she got it, how long she’s had it, etc. I spend a full 10 minutes ironing my first blouse because the conversation takes up so much of my brainpower. Zoriah smiles patiently as I pause between each word to consider whether the English phrase that pops into my mind is A) something I have the vocabulary to say in Spanish, and B) anything that will even translate if said in Spanish.

I have never been more in awe of the magic we wield with words.

Each group of coded sounds and symbols contains so much! Even more than we know.

My desire to play with words began even before I knew how to write them. I remember a painstaking afternoon trying to get a beleaguered babysitter to help me write down a rhyme I had in my head. It was my first poem—a Father’s Day card: “Being a dad much be fun, I’d like to thank you for all you’ve done.” I had recently learned how to write most letters, although I needed reminding on a few,  but I had to ask how to spell each word.

Como se dice ‘to miss?’” I ask Zoriah. She speaks just enough English to help me with new words.

Quiere? Deseo?”

I know I’ve heard the word I’m looking for before, and it’s not either of these. But maybe the word I’m thinking of is not one that people actually use in common conversation? I want to ask her if she misses her son who lives in Brazil. I want to ask her if she likes his girlfriend, if she thinks they’ll get married, if she worries about being far away. I just hope she can sense that my interest in her as a human extends deeper than my conversational abilities let on.

Statue of a woman reading. Retiro Park, Madrid

My comfort with my native language has gotten me through life so far.

My journals were my friends through an adolescence made very lonely by my awkward way with people. My essays and papers in school made up for the fact that I’ve never been a good test taker. My letter and blurb writing skills offset the fact that majoring in Dramatic Art didn’t guarantee me paying work when I graduated college. At home, I’d come to feel like I could talk my way out of almost anything…on paper at least, and it’s given me a sense of mobility and safety. What’s more, playing with words in my native language has been so easy for me, it’s been a major part of my identity since I started reading my creative writing assignments out loud in fifth grade.

So who am I when I can barely make a coherent sentence?

In yogic philosophy (I’m thinking particularly of the Upanishads), there’s an idea that all the pieces of our identity that we think of as things that make up who we are actually act as barriers to knowing our true nature. These identifiers… “My name is Sarah; I am a writer; I am a daughter; I like chocolate but not vanilla unless we’re talking about frozen yogurt in which case vanilla is okay with M&Ms in it…” these are all manifestations of the ego. These are the kinds of things we latch onto in western culture when we individuate from our parents in adolescence, which is important, I guess, but they can become separators as we grow older and our ideas about how the world works for whom become more entrenched.

The Upanishads would remind us, though, that these identifiers are just changeable illusions—not our actual Self.

I could change my name, stop writing, lose my parents, and start preferring vanilla cake, and of course I would still be myself.

So like…who is that? How do I talk or even think about that person?

There’s a reason so many major spiritual philosophies encourage us to loosen the grip on our worldly attachments; something complex happens when we start to allow ourselves the humbling experiences of ego death. Every spiritual tradition has its own way of conceptualizing and describing this phenomenon. For Christians it might be called “loving thy neighbor as thyself,” or “walking in the footsteps of Jesus.” For yogis, the Upanishads might describe it as “identifying with the Self.” Think of it this way: if each of our souls is a drop of water, the Self is the ocean that we make up together. Wouldn’t it be silly for a drop of water to feel lonely and different, less than or better than other drops, when it is part of The Big Pond?

So I’m chipping away at my language barrier and all the ego that comes with that task.

Sometimes I get frustrated that the process is going to take longer than I wish it would, but, of course (ah! Another liminal space! Help me, beginner’s mind!), I am greeted here in my humbled state by more learning that I’d bargained for.

I especially lamented not being a more capable Spanish speaker during our arduous apartment hunt here in Madrid. We spent weeks literally running across the city to be the first to arrive at newly posted apartments, but each place we saw had scores of hopeful applicants. It felt impossible to distinguish myself from the others in a positive way without knowing the subtleties of cultural norms and without my linguistic sparkle to fall back on.

It was a little surprising to notice what these obstacles did to my internal monologue. I swung from optimism to hopelessness, from trust in the universe to worst-case-scenario plans, from making the best of this trial to second guessing myself and the decision to come to this place at all.

On one particularly sour day, I knew I needed to turn my attitude around, so I sat myself in the evening sun on the terraza of a cafeteria with my journal. (I often find I have better access to my own wisdom on paper than in my brain.)

I found myself writing a prayer to Madrid.

I found myself asking this city to please let me in. Into an apartment, yes, but also into its particular magic, which didn’t feel available to me at the moment. I could sense that because I was feeling shut out, my instinct was to respond in kind. I’d get grumpy and critical, comparing this city to other cities, to home. But what I really wanted—what I want—is to be open to be reached by all languages of this place. I want to learn Spanish; I want to receive and reciprocate the kindness of the people here; I want to understand the thought behind the architecture; I want to participate in the cycles of daily life; I want to be nourished by the food; I want to walk with the rhythm of these sidewalks; I want to get a sense of how beauty and synchronicity show up in this city.

So I have to open up even when my predisposition is to contract. I have to accept the help that comes my way without shame. I have to find comfort in being a drop of water. I have to trust that as a part of the ocean, I have powers of understanding available to me—running through and around me no matter where I drift—that are greater than my old little tricks.  Also, I have to practice.

How many languages do you know, dear reader? I don’t just mean how many languages do you speak…How did you learn them?


4 thoughts on “Learning the Language

  1. When we did voice and diction classes in theater school, the teachers were forced to be half-technicians of the body, and half-psychological shamen, guiding the students through their breakdowns as their desire to excel came up hard against their ego-identity that had calcified around the way they spoke and carried themselves. Changing the way we communicate seems to precipitate real crisis, and students (including, I must admit, myself) found themselves in tears as they spasmed in terror over the loss of self they experienced as they tried to change one of their most fundamental ways of interacting with the world.

    I attempted, several times, to learn French, and I’m able to get around in it just enough to apologize for my terrible French, which is often enough to get the person to whom I’m speaking to acquiesce in pity and begin speaking English. Not a great strategy, but I’ve often relied on the kindness of strangers.

    Don’t worry too much. Communication is so much more than your words.

  2. Perfect juxtaposition, Scott. YES to that deep communicative reckoning we so often find in theatre training (when it’s good training, that is). This gives me a lot to think about…I have noticed that having to concentrate so much on day-to-day communication has me very much “out of my body” and “in my head.” Aside from my last ditch charades attempts in the supermarket, I need to start paying attention, like I would in a theatre class, to where these efforts resonate in my physicality. So often that offers up important information.

    I will say one thing, the kindness of strangers is abundant in Spain. Even my smallest errands result in heartwarming moments because of this phenomenon. That’s something I might miss if I was more fluent 🙂

    Thank you, as always, for your beautiful comments.

  3. I love this and am so excited for your new adventure! For the record, I always thought you were a very self-possessed and graceful adolescent. One thing I’ve found in my Spanish journey is that (my theory is) our history of being goofball theater kids “doing accents” afforded a facility with pronunciation that causes native listeners to seriously overestimate my command of grammar and vocabulary…

    So my advice is to not make it sound too good too fast. The headaches (actual, physical headaches) are normal and will go away after a few months. At least that’s what I’m told; I’ve never had the pleasure of spending more than 2 months in any Spanish-speaking country but I hope to, at some point!

    besitos y abrazos, Sarah!

  4. Thanks, Meg! My adolescent self would have been amazed that anyone thought I was graceful, but I’ll take it! I do find that keeping expectations low has been key to most of my positive Spanish speaking experiences. As long as I preface interactions by telling folks “Disculpe, no hablo espanol muy bien, pero…” people will even tell me at the end of our conversation that I speak Spanish very well (and I’m not just being overly modest by saying that this is objectively not true). Also, my students seem to find it delightful when I try a Spanish word and my southern accent comes through. Here’s to not forgetting where you came from!

    Thanks for reading, old friend. So good to hear from you!

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