It’s kind of a strange thing, being a white American guy who speaks Spanish. Now that the world’s ears have been incessantly exposed to Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” (I’m omitting J-Biebs because of this debacle), the Spanish language has been thrust into the popular conversation for people to practice, ignore, or butcher. Mostly butcher.
I first started learning Spanish in high school and then dropped my efforts in college until meeting a bilingual beauty whose mother’s side of the family resides in Guatemala. As our relationship grew more serious, so did the need for me to resurrect my dying Spanish. My first trip to Guatemala was full of awkward silences, misunderstandings, and headaches from mental exhaustion. Anytime I wanted to say anything, I practiced it five times in my head, first in Spanish, then critiquing it in English, then the corrected version in Spanish, then once more an assessment in English, until finally I gurgled something out, using unintelligible murmurs and wild hand gestures in place of any words I didn’t know.
Two more trips and three years of practice later, I’ve reached near fluency. I’d say I’m around 1.8-lingual, since I still want to expand my vocabulary to reach that solidly bilingual mark. I don’t usually have to translate the words into English; they instead carry their own meaning. So now I’ve reached this point where I think I’m close to bilingual, but I still run into social roadblocks that discourage me from using Spanish.
One time I ordered a cut of meat at the deli in Spanish. When I asked for the meat, he looked at me like I was nuts. I imagine I speak with a ruthlessly uncouth accent. As I repeated my order in Spanish, I wondered what compelled me to use Spanish? Did I want to feel cool? Did I want the butcher to proclaim to the masses, “Wow! Tu Español es increible!” and award me an extra pound of free pork for bridging the cultural divide between the white man and the Latino? I don’t know what I wanted, but I didn’t want to get looked at like that again.
But then there are times where I really do feel rather impressive. Like when the chef at a nearby Mexican place came to our table and heard me order in Spanish. His face illuminated with a wide-eyed smile, and he boisterously praised my apparently remarkable accomplishment. That felt pretty neat, but it also felt kind of trite. I’m 1.8-lingual, after all. It’s not like I’m a child.
Because I still get mixed reactions, I can’t help but feel like some kind of imposter. I’m the only one in my immediate family who speaks it, and while I feel comfortable speaking with my wife’s family, I have this weird mental block about speaking it with others. It’s one thing to order pork or enchiladas, but I’ve reached a level of fluency where I want to take my skills beyond family and friends.
At my current rotation, many of the patients I see speak Spanish as their primary language. Several times I have found myself observing my supervisor or coworker conducting the session with an interpreter, and I understood just about every word the patient said. That’s when the roadblock shows up.
“Why can’t you just try it?”
“You’re not good enough, you’ll make them uncomfortable.”
“You’re really good, you just need to be confident.”
“You can barely do good therapy in English, why would you want to risk trying Spanish?”
All the while, I sit there, feeling simultaneously confident and terrified.
And I feel this way in the presence of people who may live that every day. People who, despite speaking splendid English, get weird looks when ordering pork. Elicit wide smiles when saying a simple phrase. Feel like an imposter, despite having the skills and abilities.
The thing is, though, no one is forcing me to speak Spanish. I don’t have to integrate. My anxieties are rooted in wanting to bolster my résumé and expand my professional opportunities, not in needing to feel like I am legitimate and belong in society. My work doesn’t depend on my knowledge of a language; it is simply enriched by it. And while I keep honing my abilities to connect with my wife’s extended family, this is a pursuit of joy in a supporting environment, not in a workforce where I’m easily replaced.
One day I’ll probably bump up from 1.8-lingual to bilingual. The confidence will take over, and I will see patients in Spanish. But, for now, I think there’s some merit to sitting in this in-between. I will never truly grasp the magnitude of feeling second class or disadvantaged because of my lack of Spanish competence. If therapy is about connecting empathically with my patients’ experiences, maybe this is something I ought to keep feeling.
In the meantime, I’ll be rocking out to the O.G., sans J-Biebs version of “Despacito,” building up the guts to speak.
Matt Coldagelli (’14) majored in English writing and psychology at Calvin. He’s currently pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology with an emphasis on children and adolescents. He watches an absurd amount of TV and is a certified craft beer snob. Matt lives with his lovely wife in Oak Park, IL.