I speak mostly Spanish at work, Spanish with my friends, Spanish with the bus driver and in the supermarket.
There are things I love about Spanish, and in my best moments, it rolls out of my mouth without me having to think about it. At other times however, like before I’ve had my coffee, my speech can be strange and stilted and scattered with, “Can you repeat that?”s, and strange Spanglish constructions like, “Fue como, like, súpercool.”
I love Spanish in the mouths of other people, but in my mouth it still feels strange and ungainly. I know how words are supposed to sound, but I can’t quite form them. I forget important words just as I need to use them. I can ask directions and order food and even approximate my insights, dreams, and passions—but I still pray in English.
I am different, too, in Spanish. I have never been good at the sort of light small-talk one shares with coworkers and acquaintances, but in Spanish I am worse. I can ask a specific question about a chart on a report, but my tongue goes into knots when someone asks about my weekend. I am quieter here.
In English I was always the student in the front row with her hand up. If a thought came into my head, it would burn on my tongue until I had said it. I would fidget, sometimes, with the weight of my thoughts. It was as if they didn’t exist until I had spoken them aloud. I thought quickly, often out loud, talking over and around others and seizing on debates.
I can’t do that in Spanish. I listen more, nod in silence more, laugh more at other people’s jokes. I am in a position of learning, not sharing, and passive reception. I do not set the stage. This can be frustrating to me, maddening, even, but it is humbling, and has changed forever my perception of those who speak with an accent.
Sometimes, in the middle of a technical report or a deep conversation, even when it’s going well, I miss English fiercely. I crave its round sounds and ridiculous clusters of letters, its depth and delightful preciseness. I miss more than the ability to communicate—I miss the tools of my trade. I had always prided myself on writing and speaking well, and suddenly I was handed different tools to use; they felt cumbersome and did not fit well in my hands.
But these tools create work of equal worth and beauty. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I had to learn and use another language to really appreciate that it could be as detailed, expressive, and complete as my own. Translations, in the end, are really only an approximation. Spanish can be just as charming and funny and poetic as English, though in a different way—a way I understand more each day, tongue itching to join in.