Last week I wrote a post for the Language News blog about how to wake a sleeping language in your head. My inspiration was the fact that about a week and a half before leaving for Bogotá, Colombia, where I’m now drafting this blog post, I realized that all the Spanish I’d learned in Mexico was taking a deep siesta.
I spent a week drilling myself before I left: I binged Club de Cuervos on Netflix, started reading simple BBC Mundo articles in Spanish, and skyped as much as I could. All of that helped a lot — after a week, I could understand most of what was said to me again, and I was rediscovering the ability to put together sentences that made sense and were mostly correct.
But that wasn’t enough to prepare me for the experience of landing in a Spanish-speaking country and being forced to use my language skills at every turn, nor to prepare me for managing my other second language that’s been playing second fiddle all these months. Ay, qué pena.
Language Anxiety and Imposter Syndrome
My first few days in Bogotá I found myself very linguistically preoccupied. I’d been away from Latin America for four long English-filled months, with no more Spanish than I could squeeze into a couple Skype sessions and the odd news article. And I’d need to start off my vida colombiana speaking Spanish at least well enough that I wouldn’t be forced to resort to English and no one would think I was full of mierda if I claimed to speak pretty decent Spanish.
Even more upsetting to me was the fact that my Dutch was sitting somewhere in a dark corner of my mind, too stiff and afraid to come out and play, and the fact that there appeared to be a vibrant Dutch element to the expat community in Medellín made my language even more timid and anxious.
Of course there wasn’t a real reason to get upset or anxious about either of these things — Colombians were incredibly abiding during my early tongue-tied attempts at Spanish, often complimenting me for being able to speak the language at all. And I think I can still count on my two hands the number of Dutch people I’ve ever met who don’t speak English. It wasn’t communication barriers I was worried about.
This whole traveling the world through language bit is sort of my thing. Right smack dab at the center of my self-concept, long-term decision making, all that. So when I feel like I’m not doing so great at the thing that’s supposed to be my thing, it’s easily to feel like I just suck at all the things, or maybe I don’t even have a thing, or I should just avoid things altogether.
I wanted to arrive in Medellín a faithful representation of the person I think I am: someone who loves languages and the world and has spent the last three and a half years doing his best to immerse himself in both. When I can’t remember a simple Spanish verb or I make a de/het foutje with Dutch articles, I feel like, well what the hell have I even been doing all this time then?
What I’d been doing in the months leading up to Colombia was allowing my beloved languages to languish, and it showed during my first days in Bogotá.
Struggling through Simple Spanish
My first hours in Bogotá were great. A few mindless courteous phrases exchanged with airport attendants and bus drivers, and I was downtown meeting my Colombian friend Caludia, with whom I’d be staying for the week. When she showed up at our rendez vous point, I pushed out a couple sentences I’d rehearsed on the way from the airport, and we met up with her boyfriend and headed home.
And that was pretty much the end of my sounding anything like a language geek who had spent most of the previous year in Mexico.
My first day in Colombia was both easier and harder than I expected. Most of the Spanish I thought I’d forgotten came back surprisingly quickly. I didn’t have many of those moments of total wtf is going on that were so common early in the learning process. And thanks to a combination of the week I’d spent watching Mexican TV before leaving and the fact that most Bogotanos speak a beautifully clear Spanish, listening comprehension came soothingly easily.
But I got so mentally exhausted so quickly. By the time we finished dinner the first night, I could almost feel a physical need somewhere inside my brain to not be speaking Spanish right now.
The constant mental racing to find words and build them into sentences that made sense and weren’t grammatically deplorable wore me out in just a couple of hours. By the end of the night I was forgetting intermediate vocabulary words that just a few months ago I’d used daily without thinking in Mexico. I was carefully avoiding speaking in anything but the gramatically easy present and past-imperfect tenses. I’d run out of fucks to give for noun gender, and did my best to limit my responses to sí or no or vague vowel sounds and knowing head nods.
The next morning I woke up feeling better, but it didn’t last long. I spent breakfast totally mentally focused on the act of speaking: I couldn’t chat with my friends without giving them my undivided conscious attention. Small talk and its vague idioms and social pleasantries was all a lost cause. I needed a concrete topic to focus on, like a list of activities I had planned for my day or the merits of butter versus jam on your bread at breakfast.
For about two more days I mostly stayed mentally exhausted and personally frustrated. It was the nonsensical sensation of trying to use a muscle that you used to use all the time, but now a motion that used to feel natural and powerful feels foreign and weak. Like I wanted to do ten or fifteen pushups but my body just told me point-blank, no. Not possible, grunt and struggle as you might. Even though six months ago I could have done twice as many on a bad day.
My transition week in the Colombian capital was enough time and exposure to get me from stumbling around like a gangly Bambi to roaring like an adolescent Simba, but not quite to the point of deep meetings of the minds or self-aware mixing of cultural metaphors, a point I’ve never reached in Spanish and probably won’t for a while yet.
But I had reached that level in my other languishing language, and the fear of losing it is why my sagging Spanish skills weren’t the biggest thing on my mind.
Getting Dutch back under the knee
A week or so before I left for Colombia, I skyped with my cousin in Holland for the first time in a couple of months, and the conversation was a demoralizing shock.
Dutch, unlike Spanish, is a family language and much more for me. As a kid it was the series of ridiculous sounds I heard from my Oma when she talked on the phone, or the voices of my towering cousins and aunts and uncles who came to visit or who we visited in Christmas in Eindhoven. Later, it evolved into a vehicle for getting close to the side of my family I’d known little about and learning about part of where I came from.
I lived in the Netherlands for about two and a half years in total from age 21 to 24, and in that time I formed meaningful friendships in Dutch, went on Dutch-speaking dates, lived the Dutch student life with my 9 Dutch flatmates, spoke and wrote and translated Dutch in my internship, and made the language the centerpiece of a concerted effort to integrate that I don’t ever see myself making anywhere in Latin America. When I was still living in Leiden and regularly being mistaken for a true native speaker, it was the epitome of civic, linguistic, and personal success for me.
I guess what I’m saying is that the Dutch language is really really really important to me, which is why I was so nervous about meeting Dutch expats and speaking Dutch again in Medellín. And since the two languages are so different for me, the challenges I’ve faced in Dutch and Spanish in Colombia have also been continents apart.
Thankfully, my passive listening and reading skills don’t seem to have weakened at all in my year and a half away. Instead, natural self-expression suddenly feels clunky and weird: my casual, meaningless social phrases like “that sucks”, “aw no way”, “yeah sure”, “oh shit that’s so crazy”, “yeah I know right”… they’ve all more or less dried up. Spontaneous, native-like colloquial expression is suddenly a barren linguistic field for me.
A year ago in Dutch, if something had been disappointing or some kind of unpleasant, I could’ve easily said without thinking that het viel een beetje tegen, ik vond het niks, het was verschrikkelijk, or if it was a real shitshow then maybe het was een teringzooi, and noem maar op ten more depending on the context and degree of badness. But during my first days chatting up Dutch friends and expats in Medellín, I’ve found myself rotating three or four simple me gusta and no me gusta-like phrases to describe anything that warrants my two cents.
For the first time in a very long time, I’m finding that Dutch demands my attention, requires me to be on in a way I thought I didn’t really need anymore. I’m not ready for it when caught off guard. The first few minutes of every conversation feel frustratingly robotic, and sometimes I feel like I’m having to fight down Spanish words and phrases at first. And the ever-present fear of being answered in English, the ultimate linguistic middle finger, keeps my speaking anxiety high and my linguistic creativity low.
What to do, oh what to do?
Picking up where you left off
Thankfully, by the time I’m finishing this post in Medellín, I’m feeling mostly better on all linguistic fronts. A bit of charlar with the local Paisas and a couple of gezellige praatjes with the Dutchies around my coworking space, and I’m breathing a cautious sigh of relief. I’m realizing that I haven’t really lost either of my hard-earned languages, but that I just need to show them a little tender loving care.
After a while (days, weeks, it’s different for everyone), you’ll feel that you’re back where you started. If you go through what I did with Spanish — basic lexical gaps like missing verbs, noticeably increased difficulty understanding normal speech, an inability to express certain concrete ideas — then that probably means you weren’t quite at that critical threshhold at which you’ve got your language for life, and that now is the time to get really serious about learning even more.
If you’ve gone through what I did with Dutch — a frustratingly narrowed vocabulary, uncertainty with idioms, a decreased capacity to communicate spontaneously and naturally — you’ve got little to worry about. You learned that language to a high level of fluency, and while neglect is always a concern, it’ll take years of inattention before it gets legitimately difficult to speak and communicate.
Whether you’re going abroad again or are just ready to brush up, there are a few strategies you can apply leading up to using your language again and during your first days or weeks of readjusting.
- Binge on TV: Your passive skills will be both easier and more practical to focus on before you land in-country. Try watching something that features humans in relatively normal human situations like the ones you’ll be in, such as dramas and sitcoms, rather than programs with less everyday vocabulary like documentaries, game shows, or the news. Don’t be ashamed if you find you need subtitles, but put them in your target language, not your native one.
- Read out loud: So much of language is physical, and your tongue has something like a ‘muscle memory’ for languages. Find a quiet space and pick up some literature in your target language, anything from a children’s fiction book to a Wikipedia article, and read it slowly and articulately out loud to yourself.
- Fire up Skype: You’ll need to warm up your skills for basic social interactions, which all the passive listening in the world will never do. Find a speaker of your language somewhere, either on a site like Couchsurfing or by skyping a friend, and make sure to ask them to be patient with you and not switch to English.
Surviving your first few days
- Engage in longer, one-on-one conversations: Even in a language you’ve learned to a high level, group conversations can be frustrating and confusing. People talk over one another and cause extra background noise, and you as a listener have to be attuned to all their various accents and ways of speaking. For your first few conversations, try having one-on-one chats with someone, preferably sitting down and facing them so that you can see their mouth and facial expressions.
- Keep watching TV: While your focus once in-country should shift more towards your active skills, you won’t be able to use them very effectively without the passive ones to back them up. Watching television once you’re in an immersion state will make you extra sensitive to recognizing and understanding new or old phrases that you might have heard throughout your day and not quite figured out the first time around.
- Don’t try to talk as fast as you used to: If you used to speak a language very fluently, it may feel natural for you to try to speak it somewhat quickly, maybe even as quickly as you speak in your native tongue. Instead, slow it down: your mind and tongue aren’t yet readjusted to working in this language, so forcing them to move faster will likely only lead to long pauses or tying your tongue in a knot.
- Leave well enough alone: This one’s for you, perfectionists. Don’t avoid a verb you know because you’re not sure if you’re saying it right in the third person past: give it a stab, then maybe ask your conversation partner if it was correct or not. If you keep making the same mistakes, natives will likely notice the pattern and offer to help, but striving for perfection will severely limit your expressive range and the pace at which you readjust.
- Go cold turkey on your mother tongue: English is the enemy! Thinking and communicating in English is seductively easy in the throes of the first few days, when you feel like you just need a break from this vicious monstrosity of a language you’re relearning. Grant yourself some quiet mother tongue TV or reading time at the end of the day if you need to (I often do), but push yourself to never resort to English or your native language in your daily conversations and activities.
This is my first linguistic crisis, the Great Language Recession of 2016, but I’m working hard to manage it with sound policy and powerful incentives. So far an encouraging zero languages have been lost, and we’re predicting unprecedented growth for Second Quarter 2016, particularly in the Spanish sector.
If you find that a language that used to be second nature for you is suddenly making you feel like you’re back in your second semester of classes, accept it for what it is, realize this just happens sometimes, and calm down. Maybe you didn’t do enough upkeep, or maybe life just got in the way and you were busy being a human. But don’t freak out, and don’t lose confidence: keep calm and carry on speaking and learning languages.
Have you ever had a rude awakening trying to use one of your languishing languages? Share your thoughts in the comments below or in a tweet to @JakobGibbons!