I whine and I complain. Although I know darn well that there’s no point. The only thing that will fix it is time, patience, and perseverance.
I’m talking about my Spanish.
At this stage, I’m not exactly getting a lot of sympathy either. The consensus among my Spanish friends seems to be that my Spanish is “good”.
That’s certainly very kind of them, I appreciate the thumbs up and a pat on the back just like the next person, but I don’t agree, and it’s got nothing to do with false modesty. What they are doing is comparing their English to my Spanish, and of course my Spanish would be better than their English, because most of my pals have never been to an English speaking country other than for a brief holiday. I, on the other hand, actually live here in Spain and need to use the language on a daily basis. In other words, they are comparing apples to oranges.
I wasn’t really sure how to convey the nature of my discontent succinctly, until, about a month ago, I came across this quote by jazz musician genius Miles Davis:
“Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”
Now, I cannot read a musical score, never mind hold a note, but the direct parallel for me as a language learner is quite striking.
What I want, quite simply, is to sound like myself when I communicate in Spanish.
My level of frustration is directly proportional to the discrepancy between what I am able to say and what I want to say. My conversation partners are largely unaware of my internal battle; what they hear coming out of my mouth are (fairly) intelligible sentences. On a good day.
What they don’t hear are all the words and thoughts that died a silent death on the way. I avoid “risky” grammatical constructions, and that great expression I stumbled across in a book last night and which would come in so handy right now, has left the memory banks for good. I sound like I’m cranking up a spluttering, second-hand speech generator by its rusty handle instead of being plugged into the mains.
Those unsuspecting friends of mine remain blissfully ignorant of the colourful diatribes that ricochet through my brain. My unvented sarcasm pools, like congealed blood, at the back of my throat, never reaching the vocal chords. My true personality thrashes around, bound and gagged, in the frayed straightjacket of my linguistic incompetence. Which goes a lot towards explaining, I guess, why people are still willing to hang out with me.
The unnerving – but also exciting! – dimension of this is that I’ve no idea, as yet, what I’ll sound like in Spanish once I do actually manage to sound like myself.
For me, there is no joy in staying on the well-trodden path, in regurgitating prefabricated phrases. What I love is messing around with words. But rather than contorting the Spanish language into a dissonant artifact that is going to grate native speakers’ eardrums to shreds, I’m dying to inject a dash of originality here and there, to break the rules in a way that is only possible once you actually know the rules. To have fun with language is an integral part of my being, and as long as I can’t do that, I’m just not going to sound like myself.
It is difficult to explain this process to someone who hasn’t been through it themselves. Some bi/multilingual people will describe it as “having different personalities in different languages”. This doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head, though. For one, it makes it sound like we have a mental disorder.
To me, fully integrating another language feels more like having a new module, a powerful processor, the mother of a mega-chip, hardwired into your PersonalityCPU. As the new part gradually comes to life, it starts to fuse organically with the existing linguistic units. Once the process is complete, they are quite capable of running independently of each other, while, at the same time, forming a multidirectional information superhighway so much bigger than the sum of its constituent parts. If this sounds like a paradox, that’s because it is. It leaves you forever changed, yet it’s still the same you.
When I look back at the first two monolingual decades of my life, it seems like I’d been cramped into a titchy hovel. Then Project English came along, adding not only a swish kitchen, but a whole new storey to the building.
Right now, I’m constructing a verandah, a conservatory, a patio, a pool – I’m landscaping an entire garden, in fact. As we all know, building works are a messy affair. There’s piles of rubble, mountains of dust, and raw, ploughed-up earth that is going to need smoothing over and planting.
But I’ll get there. In a few years’ time, I’ll be watering my lush flower beds and munching on my freshly harvested strawberries, while chattering to my Spanish neighbours across the fence. And I’ll sound just like myself.
You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com