Anyone who says that learning a new language is "easy" is either a genius or an idiot. It isn't difficult in the sense that Calculus is difficult, but is instead difficult on a variety of levels, both mentally, emotionally, and sometimes even physically. Every interaction is a test. Can you understand the person talking to you? Can they understand you? Can you even formulate the things that you want to say? It's always an uphill battle.
I came with a hardier understanding of Spanish this year. I was more advanced than I was last year, but I was still quite rusty since I had few people back home to practice with. Being immersed in the language is a completely different story than just hearing someone utter one phrase in passing in the grocery store. I felt like I should have come with a full year's worth of Spanish practice under my belt, but the truth was that it simply wasn't possible. It didn't matter how many hours I had practiced on my own, it was nothing compared to being thrust in a situation where I had to understand someone with no ropes to save me.
My confidence plummeted after a few days of realizing just how "far behind" I was. This time, I was the person who knew the least amount of Spanish, and it was a sinking feeling. People who came after me last year knew more Spanish than I did because I wasn't immersed in it for months at a time. I should have been to that point, and I was embarrassed and disappointed in myself. I felt like I appeared "lazy" or like I didn't care enough to learn their language or like I was dead-set on speaking English or not advancing myself. What was I to do? Plus, I felt like I couldn't even string a sentence together. "What are you saying? I can't understand you, just speak in English." Other people's impatience began to make even the patient people impatient, and that sinking feeling began to grow more painful.
Here's the deal, though: learning a new language is never easy, no matter how you slice it. Everyone has a hard time with it, some people are just better at hiding it. Everyone has moments of anger or frustration at themselves or times when they feel like they don't understand anything, but you have to pick yourself up off the ground and keep trying. Everyone started somewhere.
Not ready to give up hope or be shot down so quickly, I strove to make myself better. I began reading books and such in Spanish and leaving the "Google Translate" tab up at all times. I learned the people who were "safe" to test my skills out with and those who were a little less patient. I listened to people's conversations and again looked up words I did not understand. I learned to be brave and ask if there was a word I didn't know. I spoke more often with strangers I encountered on the beach and stopped being so afraid of telling people that I didn't have the greatest Spanish when it was evident that I didn't fully understand them. I have even started watching whatever Doctor Who episodes I can find on YouTube that are in Spanish just to attempt to understand the language better.
I've had to accept, though, that I can only do so much. I want to stay up for hours every night struggling with the language and learning it, but I am so exhausted as it is. Sometimes I'm even too exhausted to really attempt to translate what people are saying to me, but I do it anyway. You aren't expected to be able to do everything and improve substantially overnight, and if you are, you are in the wrong place or with the wrong people. I am lucky to be somewhere that is almost always a very safe space for learning a new language. Virtually everyone is attempting to learn another language here, whether it be English or Spanish, and thus I have the wonderful benefit of being right in the middle of an open and welcoming learning environment.
Sometimes you have to fight the feeling that people are tired with you or that their patience has run out. Even if that turns out to be the case, sometimes you just have to tell yourself that you have improved even if no one else seems to see it. People can't get in your head and they can never truly know how much you actually understand. In a moment of joking, someone laughed and said in Spanish that I "understood nothing." In reality, I understood them, I just mixed up one singular word with a very similar sounding word. The worst thing is hearing someone mumble something with your name and you don't know what they said about you. It's like a secret they can say in front of you, a stab in the back while you're standing there and watching helplessly. It's hard and it hurts, but you have to ignore it and continue moving on.
For everyone who is tired of your trying or impatient with you, there will always be understanding, patient people who are willing to help you try and realize your improvement. There is no better feeling than people telling you that you are doing so much better and that they can see improvement. I think new speakers don't hear it as often as they should, and I cannot stress enough how important it is to encourage them. I try to do it frequently because it really gives people a boost in confidence.
Some days are better than others. Sometimes I understand everything that comes out of someone's mouth and don't even have to think about it and respond so quickly that it feels like I've been doing it forever. Sometimes someone speaks and I miss the most crucial part, respond, and then realize my mistake as everyone laughs. Learning a new language is a journey complete with mountains, valleys, and hills, but it's the journey that changes you. Learning a new language requires so much of you and wears you so thin, but then it builds you back up stronger than before. You have little moments of intense excitement when you realize you said something or understood something correctly and these are what get you through the unnerving moments. Sometimes it is encouraging to take a moment and reflect on how far you've actually come rather than how far you have to go. This year I speak almost entirely in Spanish to my lab buddy, something I was incapable of last year. We've had whole conversations about research, protocols, and other unrelated things, and I was able to speak to him in Spanish and understand him when he spoke to me. That is something to be proud of, and I should be proud of myself for it.
People probably think that como is my favorite word. I have to use it often after people talk to me in order to ask them to repeat the phrase, sometimes two or three or even four times. But, I keep trying. That's the key. The more you try, the better you will become.
The sun rises and the sun sets. There are new days and new opportunities to try again. There are kind people and times of success, and there are people who understand what you are going through and have been there themselves. You are not alone in this. We are not alone in this.