Posted by: Jena Davison | October 24, 2009

I’m Fluent in Spanglish

One of my primary motives for coming to South America was to practice and improve my Spanish. When I left Barcelona a year and a half ago, I was elated with excitement knowing that I could actually form complete sentences and sustain a full conversation in Spanish. However, since I have arrived in Latin America, I feel as if I have been playing charades more than I have been articulating words. For some inexplicable reason, my well of Spanish vocabulary has momentarily (I hope) run dry. That, coupled with the mumbled accent here and the use of the ¨vos¨ form, has all but sent the Spanish mode of my brain into a frenzy. Uruguayans, and Argentines as well, speak very quickly and cut off the ends of words a lot, making it very difficult to decipher what they are saying, let alone to decode the meaning. For instance, they replace the double L, which is pronounced like a¨y¨in Castellano, with a ¨shh¨sound, and the ¨y¨is pronounced like a ¨j.¨Cross the cah-sh-eh, not the cah-yeh. Let’s go to the plah-jah, not playa.They say “aca” instead of “aqui” and say “no te presigas” instead of “no pasa nada” (don’t worry). The “vos” form consists of simply removing the -ar, -er, or -ir of a verb, replacing it with as, es and is respectively, and adding an accent mark onto the last vowel. Tenés instead of tienes, querés instead of quieres, etc. Plus, they use “vos” to say “you,” rather than “.” This all goes against the Mexican-style Spanish taught in the States and the Castellano they speak in Spain, but I am slowly getting used to all of the differences.

It is even harder to understand and communicate with Spanish-speakers over the phone when they call our reception desk. This is mostly because there is no body language to see and interpret, something I rely on heavily in communicating with others. Whenever I answer the phone, I tend to freeze up or try to hand the phone off to one of the other staff members who is better at Spanish than me. All of this has been very discouraging lately and I have become really shy with speaking Spanish, which is fairly atypical for me. I know soon enough, I will gain more confidence, but right now I am just really frustrated. I am further frustrated by the fact that I am living, working and partying with all Americans, which is ultimately hindering my ability to practice and improve my foreign language skills. I knew this was what I was getting myself into when I applied to this job (and I am having a wonderful time, don’t get me wrong), but I feel as if I am living in an American bubble in Uruguay, rather than simply living in Uruguay itself. This is the one and only reason I am looking forward to beginning the next leg of my journey (back to Buenos Aires and north toward Ecuador). And as I see it, since I am traveling alone and will most likely visit many places where they do not know any English, it is sink or swim at this point in terms of learning Spanish. Perhaps, that is the best (or only) way to learn a new language–to be completely removed from any sort of comfort zone and be fully immersed in it all the time. I personally want to know Spanish for more than just asking for a cafe con leche or navigating the metro system with ease. I want to be able to connect with and really get to know the locals who live in the places I am going, and that is obviously only possible if no paralyzing language barriers exist. That is so important to me as a traveler. I am not here to see, I’m here to experience.

Much to my delight, a lot more Spanish-speaking guests have come stay here lately and I have had the opportunity to practice my Spanish a bit. I have also made more of an effort to make smalltalk with locals who I recognize or have interacted with in the village. A few nights ago, a group of Uruguayans from Montevideo came to stay here and I tried my best to comprehend what they were saying and squeeze in my own comments as well. They spoke in Spanish all night and though I didn’t understand a lot of what they were saying, I am sure I was immensely improving my comprehension skills just from listening. When I mentioned I could speak Spanish a little and had studied in Spain, they literally made me speak in Spanish and pretended like they could not speak or understand English (even though they were great English-speakers). They were so patient with correcting my errors and with speaking to me slower than usual to help me understand what they were saying. Everyone is over-the-top nice here and people thoroughly appreciate it when you try to speak in Spanish rather than just lazily speaking English.

Anyways, that night was one of my favorite nights here thus far because I was able to really get to know some Uruguayans and they all brought their guitars and it turned into one giant jam session. At first a bunch of guys were just improvising, but then it evolved into a full-on sing-a-along with Bob Marley, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin songs. Joining in on the fun was a young couple–Julie from Berlin and Hugo from Portugal, whose common language was Spanish, not English. Hugo is a zookeeper in Lisbon, where he looks after the eagles and other birds. While studying in a small town in Spain a few years ago, Julia went to Lisbon on vacation and met Hugo. Hugo took a job in Spain some months after and while waiting for all the paperwork to get squared away, he went to Berlin to visit Julia. They fell in love and he never left. He picked up a random assortment of odd jobs in Germany to save up money and now they are traveling South America for an undetermined amount of time. So cute!

A couple of days later a Colombian guy named Camilo and a French guy named Pierrick, whose Spanish was signficantly better than his English, checked in. I spent that night speaking to them only in Spanish, while others retired to bed. Camilo’s Colombian accent was a breath of fresh air to me, as I understood almost everything he said when he talked slowly. Then two nights ago, Javier, a Uruguayan native, checked in and I spent a while chatting with him in Spanish too. He works for a movie production company and his job is to travel around Uruguay and try to locate places, houses, buildings where they can shoot movies. Last night, a couple from Spain’s Canary Islands checked in and I was thrilled to talk to them about Spain. Basically, I have accepted that I am not going to understand everything everyone says in every conversation, but I can’t be discouraged by that fact alone. Likewise, I have accepted the fact that getting to the level of Spanish I am striving for will take considerable effort and patience. But for now I take pride in being fluent in Spanglish.

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