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When I first learned about chopsticks, I wanted to learn how to use them.!! Unfortunately, I was not very talented. In the beginning, it was like an endurance test. How long could I last.? First it was five minutes, then eventually 10 minutes. My fingers would cramp up. I would sweat. I couldn’t pick up the wet rice at the bottom. At some point, I would surrender and grab a fork or a spoon.
Then I would stuff my mouth with impunity. You would have thought I hadn’t eat in days. I was so impatient to learn and so disheartened at how long it was taking. But finally, after what seemed like thousands of bowls of shrimp fried rice and noodles, I could last the entire meal. I had finally mastered chopsticks. It became a new source of pride for me.!!
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And then my next challenge came… In the form of the Spanish language.! I started out slowly with the basics. Simple pleasantries were my mainstay such as the weather and how everyone was doing. Eventually, I learned to tell people more about myself such as where I was from, where my parents were from, and how many siblings, neices, nephews, etc I had. I could also inquire about other peoples’ families and origins. They were small, small, baby steps.
At my first two jobs in Mexico, I did not need to speak a lot of Spanish. And most of my Mexican friends wanted to practice English with me. So I became lax. But then two things happened. I became pretty serious with my Mexican novio and he wanted to teach me Spanish. And secondly, at my third and final and most happy job, I needed to speak and understand Spanish. All of our morning meetings were held in Spanish. Plus, a good portion of the hotel staff such as security, housekeeping, and maintenance did not speak English.
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This of course was great because my Spanish improved drastically. This of course was also a nightmare. Let us not forget that in my little pea brain, I already have three other languages – my first (Croatian), my second (English), and my third (French)..!! And sometimes these three languages like to overlap each other. And while my French is pretty horrible at best, it is still inside my mind and likes to rear it’s head at very inopportune times. Usually on those occasions when I use le as a masculine determiner rather than él.
Of course when I would have a few drinks, then Croatian would come out.! Who knew.?! I guess it’s the place I go to first when I am a little inebriated.! Then almost no one would understand me.! However, what I also learned is that just like with the chopsticks, I was slowly building endurance. Everyday, I could last a little bit longer than the day before. Every week, I could understand one more word, one more sentence, and one more expression. I no longer had to cry, “No, I can’t take it. It’s 4pm. No more Spanish today..!”
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I was completely surprised at how long it took me to learn Spanish. Is it an age thing.? Is Spanish more difficult? Was I lazy.? I don’t know. But what I did know is that I wanted to learn. Even when I had a headache. Even when my brain overloaded to the point that I did not understand a single word anyone was saying. There were definitely days, I would become so overwhelmed from my inablility to understand what someone was saying. Or a document.
Sometimes, I would mix up my sentences and speak half English and half Spanish. I was made fun of for that and accused of speaking Spanglish. But what I was really doing was continuing to speak the sentence or phrase I had the most skill in to continue to make it part of my daily rhythm. I spoke sentences in English that I had not yet mastered. Or sometimes, I did what most bi-lingual or multi-lingual speakers do, I code-switched. It’s where you use the expression or word that is suited best for the moment and is not easily translated.!
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I think mastering the language slowly is the only thing that kept me going and learning. I met so many expats who didn’t even try after so many years of living in Mexico.!! I also remember the surprised looks from my co-workers and friends when I would say, “Stop, I can’t anymore. It’s 4pm.” Because I was always trying, so that surprised them. But even marathon runners have to work up to 26.2 miles. They just don’t start out running that many miles. And the same can be true about learning a language.
When I left Mexico, I was at 4pm. That time became my cutoff and my rallying (or surrendering) cry. “It’s 4pm. I can’t speak or understand Spanish for the rest of the day.!” Of course everyone laughed, I’m funny 🙂 But I hope they also understood. Now after being gone so long, I worry that my endurance has regressed. What if now I can only make it to 2pm.? Do I still have what it takes to continue learning? I surely hope so.! Ojala..