Uncle Sam Wants You to Speak Spanish

September 8, 2014 Kristance Harlow
Hola in lights

I was on my usual grind yesterday. You know the drill: opening up a blank word doc to write an article on the right side of the screen and on the left opening Chrome with the intention of doing research on said article. Despite my good intentions, Facebook takes over the screen and I’m powerless to stop scrolling as I rationalize away my procrastination. Maybe I’ll see something that will spark an idea. Oh, I better check my writing groups for advice on how to be productive.

Usually the scrolling will inevitably lead me down a dangerous path of getting pissed at people who post thoughts on issues that I wildly disagree with. I normally won’t reply and just click to not see the post again. If my thoughts drift to OMG Buzzfeed gifs! then I’m in trouble for at least two hours. I’ll get distracted with finding gifs for my fun #instalaugh tumblr blog. Productivity.

Today, however, I have to thank one of my good childhood friends for posting something on Facebook that I hated. To preface this, I absolutely adore the poster of this particular image. She’s a smart savvy badass woman who has the most adorable baby girl. We used to spend our childhood days pretending to be Mary Kate and Ashley in “It Takes Two” (matching overalls and all). Later in life we had a hilarious evening in a Seattle Hilton where the security came and thought they were breaking up a party when it was just three ridiculous 20-something girls laughing hysterically. We had plans to reunite during my last trip to the Pacific Northwest but it fell through because I didn’t realize how short and busy a two week trip can be.

When I see posts that annoy me on Facebook I try not to say anything. I’ve stuck my foot in my mouth more times than I can count. While I stand by my well-educated fact checking, some people don’t like to hear the other side and I have definitely created rifts with people due to my strong opinion sharing. I’ve learned to tone that down, but when I saw this picture posted by Ali I couldn’t stay quiet. I knew she’d be up for hearing my opinion and wasn’t going to freak out because I had something contrary to say.

This is the image I saw:

Uncle Sam Wants You TO SPEAK ENGLISH

I scrolled away from the picture thinking that I would just let it go and not say anything. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It struck a cord. It felt personal. “Uncle Sam wants you TO SPEAK ENGLISH.” It kept replaying in my head and I got more and more annoyed by the second. Yeah, well Argentina wants me TO SPEAK SPANISH but I am flailing, it’s not that easy. I had to say something to stand up for all of us who are language-learning-impaired. I scrolled back up and had to say my piece. I wrote, “It’s incredibly hard to learn a new language. I’ve lived in Argentina for over a year now and I can barely converse in broken Spanish. Not everyone is good at learning a new language, even when they want to. Sorry, but I seriously hate when people say shit like that. I know what it’s like to be a foreigner and suck at the local language.”

I am not an immigrant, but I am living abroad. Lately, I have been thinking about this a lot. I’m turning 28 in less than a month. No birthday has felt so monumental as this one. I don’t really know why, but perhaps it is because I have been living abroad for the majority of my 20s. And I’ve lived in entirely different cultures and countries while abroad. Without delving into the nasty relationship I survived in England and Scotland, I can say that even in the best of times the United Kingdom and Argentina are as different as night and day. In all these various locations that I’ve spent a significant amount of time (India, England, Scotland, Argentina) there were unique challenges.

Living in Argentina, outside of dealing with the personal issues I’ve written about previously, my biggest struggle is the language. I want to speak Spanish. I need to speak Spanish. My life would 100x easier if I could speak Spanish. I also wish I could assimilate to the culture. So far, I can’t. I can’t get used to the late dinners, the packed clubs, the lack of spicy foods, the late night friends’ gatherings sans alcohol. I also can’t seem to learn Spanish.

That’s a little misleading. Compared to when I arrived, I can converse in Spanish. My ability to communicate is based entirely on the topic and the day. I can talk at length about my inability to speak Spanish in Spanish. I can also go shopping and talk about work. I can talk about incredibly easy topics and I can also guarantee that my conjugation and tenses will be wrong. I will also forget important pieces to a sentence and probably end up sounding like a cavewoman who can’t eloquently express a complete thought.

I don’t live in an expat community here in Buenos Aires. My friendly neighborhood barrio is not full of foreigners. They usually live in Palermo or Recoletta. I live in Urquiza because the rent is cheap and the apartment is beautiful. People who encounter me for the first time usually think I’m just a tourist. My Spanish is that basic. If I’m in a bad mood, I try to say nothing in Spanish and just nod or shake my head. There are days when I impress myself with my language abilities, unfortunately the opposite is also true. Saturday I can feel like a badass communicater who can get my thoughts and feelings across to anyone in Spanish. Then Sunday rolls around and I can barely say “No entiendo” (“I don’t understand”).

I’ve been here for a year. An entire year. That’s longer than most people study abroad and it’s as long as I was in graduate school for. Yet, I still can’t speak the language. I am elementary en Español. I will be honest, I’m not in a class for Spanish (they are too expensive for my budget right now) and I don’t spend much of my time studying on my own (instead I spend my time trying to heal my body and mind while chasing freelance writing work). I do not have the energy or the concentration at this time in my life to study Spanish all the time. Even when I used to study hard at other languages, I never learned them easily.

I live with my Argentine boyfriend, but we only chat in English. He likes to talk to me in English and our relationship has been established in my native language. I’ve spoken with many other intercultural couples and found a common pattern when it comes to language. Even for bilingual couples, whatever language you spoke in the beginning stages of dating, you will likely continue to speak that language as the relationship continues. That is certainly the case with us. I like to joke that it’s his fault that I can’t speak Spanish, but isn’t. It is no one’s fault.

I have a lot of reasons why I haven’t been able to learn Spanish. My mind has been elsewhere, for one. I am in a difficult situation having gone through a lot of trauma in the year before I met my boyfriend. From the sudden death of my father, to the loss of my childhood home, to domestic abuse, to when my uncle’s house burnt down and I thought I was going to die. I’m dealing with those experiences still and have to give myself the time and space to heal. I am dealing with depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder. That combination is a real buzz kill. I was a straight A student all the way through grad school. I finished with fabulous grades and excellent references. Basically, I am usually a nerdy over achiever, but I still haven’t been able to learn Spanish. Some people are fabulous at learning languages, I am not one of those people. In high school French class I got As but only because I memorized the answers necessary to complete exams, not because I understood what was going on. In college I took Italian. I had a tutor for Italian and I still only squeaked by with a C because of a very generous professor. I have to constantly remind myself that it is ok to not be the best at everything. I’m an independent and head strong world traveler, but I am not the assimilating type. It is hard for me. And that is ok, it’s just part of who I am.

Living abroad is hard. Just a year abroad can be challenging. When I lived in Britain I had a huge leg up. I could speak English. The culture was different, but there were a lot of similarities. The Brits like to drink alcohol, so do the Americans I know, and that is basically the most comfortable similarity we had. Food was also pretty similar. Even there, I didn’t assimilate to the culture. Americans who have lived in London for decades will still not be able to act like they’re entirely like people who grew up in Britain. When you live in a different country everything looks different, it smells different, it feels different. Expecting an immigrant to just “melt” into your country’s culture is simply arrogant and ignorant. Arrogant because it assumes that the your culture is more desirable than their culture and to become a part of this new culture the immigrant wants to just let their personal history and life story to become nothing more than a fleeting memory. Ignorant because it assumes someone can do that. No one can do that.

Your life today is the way it is because of everything that happened before. Even the most minute details of your past will reveal themselves in your everyday life. The smell of fresh cut grass might remind you of summer days at your parents’ house. When you’re sick you might reach for ramen noodles because that’s what your dad made you as a kid. Maybe you have an aversion to Captain Morgan because in college you had a nasty night of drinking too much and got sick on the stuff, so now anytime you even smell rum your stomach turns. Everything about you has been molded by your past: your beliefs, how you define home, what is important to you, what you enjoy doing, what you hate doing. And once you’ve lived abroad for a long period of time, or more poignantly, once you’ve struggled while living in a different country, you will understand just how true that is.

Ali, replied that she totally respected my perspective and that she felt that if she was living abroad she would try to learn the culture and language, and at the same time wouldn’t be rude within her new culture. To close out my opinion I wrote, “I don’t want to argue or debate about it, but most likely they do want to try and do want to learn. It’s hard. You never know what someone else is going through or why they can’t learn a new culture and language. Adapting to a new culture is even harder than learning the language. We all have our own experiences of home and feeling at home in a different place is hard. It’s a huge misconception that immigrants come and just don’t care. (Not to mention there are many immigrants who moved purely for economic or security reasons, not because they wanted to move, they had to move). It is frustrating to not understand whats going on around you and some people just never assimilate because they can’t. As much as I love to travel and live abroad, I would probably never be able to assimilate to this country. I’m American and it comes out in my daily interactions even when I don’t mean it to.” She called “touche” on my response and she gave me permission to talk about our convo in my blog.

Don’t judge anyone, because you will never know what life is throwing at them. You have no idea if someone is trying as hard as they can to jump on the melting pot bandwagon. No matter what anyone has to say about it, I unequivocally, wholeheartedly, vehemently disagree with the notion that it is ever ok to tell people “Just speak English.”

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  1. Rose L. on September 10, 2014 at 4:21 am

    Having made an attempt to learn a bit of another language, I know how difficult the task can be! I have difficulty enough just trying to come up with the right words in English, and that is all I know! Working at a college, I can see the difficulty students from various countries have communicating clearly.

    • Kristance Harlow on September 12, 2014 at 12:15 am

      Until you try to learn a language you have no idea how difficult it is. And so many people say that immersion is the only way to go, well I’ve done that and while I’ve learned more by living here than in any class, I still struggle. We’re all different and some people are gifted with learning languages, I am not one of them! 😉

  2. Astrid on September 9, 2014 at 6:48 pm

    I can sos ee your point of view. I am Dutch and, though I write English quite well, my pronounciation sucks because, well, I don’t do Skype or voice chats or the like often. My husband is a German major and wants to move to Germany someday, which is why he encourages me to learn German too. I won’t for now, because firstly I have other things on my mind (eg. my mental health). Also, unlike English, German is not a language which people assume you can speak even if you don’t or for which natives will cut you slack if you go on say Internet forums. I learned English largely through the Internet, and there’s just no reason for me to go on German blogs or forums. Besides, unless you study philosophy or theology or you want to become a translator like my husband, well, what’s the point of learning German for you might live there someday? As for your situation, I understand people pushing you to learn the language, but they don’t know the reasons why you can’t. They don’t understand the effort it takes for you to get by in Argentina.

    On a sort of related note, I once blogged about autism (which I have been diagnosed with) and it being like speaking a different language and being in a different culture. If you were suddenly thrown into a foreign country with no tools to learn the language or culture and no-one bothered to try speaking yours, wouldn’t you get frustrated? Someone commented by saying they’d try to learn the language of that country, and I understand their point, but this person probably never learned a second language (I think they came from the U.S.) let alone an entirely different culture. Besides, if you try to speak the language of the country you’re in and your failed attempts are met with negativity and comments like the one in the picture you shared, what’s the point?

    • Kristance Harlow on September 12, 2014 at 12:18 am

      I love your comparison of speaking a different language and autism. That’s a beautiful insight and I can see what you’re saying. I’ve followed Carly Fleischmann and been very inspired and touched by the way she has broken through barriers to explain what her experience in the world is. I will be checking out your blog to read about your experiences!

  3. Alice Lynn on September 9, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    After reading your blog, I feel I have gained a deeper understanding about culture, language, and assimilation. I never heard it put quite so well, how we are shaped and formed by the culture we are born into, but it makes such sense! It puts me in mind of Rupert Brooke’s poem, The Soldier (1914)
    If I should die, think only this of me:
    That there’s some corner of a foreign field
    That is forever England. There shall be
    In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
    A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
    Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
    A body of England’s, breathing English air,
    Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
    And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
    A pulse in the Eternal mind, no less
    Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given,
    Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
    And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
    In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

    • Kristance Harlow on September 12, 2014 at 12:19 am

      Beautiful poem! And when looked at through this light, I completely understand it. You are where you come from, you are the sum of your life experiences, and wherever you end up has been touched by that equation.

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