Just don’t ask me if I’m fluent.

I’m finally noticing that my Spanish is improving, at least to where it was when I left Ecuador which was definitely my peak of bilingualism (I think I was in Guate for too short of a time and surrounded by too much Tzutujil to improve much there.) I know I’m back in the game because in the past few weeks I’ve picked up more colloquial phrases, slang and sayings than my entire time here. I think it means that my brain passes over the content of what I hear, because it automatically registers what’s being said, and focuses on the words that don’t immediately make sense. I’m going to talk like a 16-year old Colombian by the time I’m done as that’s whom I spend most of my time with. This country has more specific words than I’ve noticed anywhere else, though whether it’s the degree of immersion or the language itself, I don’t actually know. The things I write about in Sh** Colombians Say are the most common but there are hundreds more and I’m collecting as many as possible first hand.

While my listening comprehension is solid (and do I ever overhear some great conversations at school – I’m like the fly on the wall) I still struggle to express myself sometimes. I usually have the words somewhere, I just occasionally fumble putting them together if it’s not a standard issue question. I’ve left more than one conversation frustrated because I really want to get my point across but it’s hard in a second language and foreign context.

I’ve had a few misfortunate slips in Spanish in my classes, and believe me, I won’t be forgetting a common word that also means “fornicate” in Colombia. Because of that, if my students (9th and up at least) ask me what a swear means in English, I tell them to the best of my knowledge. I don’t have any problem educating them in things that they can’t learn from books, aka saving them from future misunderstandings about the pronunciation of “beach” and “bitch.”

My high level of Spanish is a blessing and a curse at school. As it is, communication can be very difficult, so without knowing the language that everyone else is speaking I would be extremely distressed in my placement. It’s essential for building relationships with other teachers and understanding most of what’s going on, and it’s often much more effective for discipline and calling attention. I understand that it’s far easier to tune out a second language, so when I’m yelling “Listen please!” it doesn’t register to a 13 year-old brain quite like “Escuchen por favor!” does.

Spanish is also a burden. My kids know I speak it, and they will pester me nonstop with “How do you say this? How do you say that?” until I have to remind them that I AM NOT A DICTIONARY. They get upset when I legitimately do not know a word that they’re asking me. If they don’t understand something, they whine “profe, in espaneeeeeeshhhhhh!” I think they would make more of an effort to speak English with me if they didn’t know there was another option, but as the only fluent speaker among 180 kids and 20 teachers, I can’t exactly hide it.

I try to consistently use only English with students throughout the day, even if they talk at me in Spanish, but sometimes it’s just nice to have a conversation in a language we both understand. Part of my role as a foreign volunteer is cultural ambassador, and I would much rather give and receive accurate information at the expense of some English retraction than leave things unclear. Sometimes it’s just plain frustrating to be misunderstood all the time. I always reiterate that I’m still learning Spanish and I know languages are hard. Mistakes are inevitable and rewards are absolutely immeasurable. I wouldn’t be living and teaching 20 miles outside the capital of Bogotá if I were good at physics.

…I would have a salary instead…and benefits….and be WAY more boring.

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