Saturday, April 28, 2012

the sweaty walk to fluency (and the non-arrival at said place)

For those of you who have never had the need to communicate well in another language, let me offer a friendly word of discouragement: it’s harder than you think.

When I first arrived in Nicaragua, I had more or less mastered what I considered “Level 1 Spanish.” In other words, on a scale of 1 to 10, with fluency being 10, I considered myself about a 3. Roughly 20,000 hours later (counting a few hundred of intensive language study, time spent sleeping, time spent in the States, time spent complaining about things, etc.), my Spanish is probably 50 times better than it was, yet I would consider myself about a 5. Turns out, when I arrived, I was more of a 0.1.

Fluency is like the time you had the bright idea to walk to a destination several miles away that you’ve driven to a hundred times. You begin your journey with three thoughts:

  1. This is saving gas and giving me great exercise!
  2. I could really see myself doing this all the time. Everyone should!
  3. The drive takes about 15 minutes, so walking should take about an hour, right?

WRONG! You arrive many hours later smelling like you’ve been mowing the lawn and with three new thoughts:

  1. I will never do that again.
  2. The city should really have better sidewalks.
  3. Who can I call to give me a ride home?

This is to say that at first glance, fluency seems like it only consists in being able to understand and be understood. But once you get close to mutual understanding, you realize that fluency is farther away than you thought because you realize that you still can’t do with it what you can do with English. You can’t bend it to your will. You can’t be verbally clever so you revert to slapstick. Your descriptions of things are colorless and boring. Your explanations are so full of word substitutions and explain-arounds (the word I learned for this in college is circumlocution) as to be rendered nearly useless. You don’t know the nuances of meaning in all the synonyms for give, try, or talk. Heck, you don’t even know the synonyms themselves. But even bigger than increasing your vocabulary are the issues of identity and meaning. In other words: what is my personality translated in Nicaraguan Spanish, and how can I tweak my actions and speech to have a similar effect on Spanish speakers that I have in English?

For example, in American English, I’m the kind of person who says things like, “Yeah, man!” But am I the kind of person who says things like “¡Sí, hombre!”? I use movie quotes in everyday life, and I love to speak in stupid accents, but is there a Nica equivalent to this? How do I make a bad pun to get people to laugh against their will?

Also, a lot of Nicaraguans call others by their physical characteristics: fatty, shorty, skin problem, big-head, etc., and it seems that no one gets offended by this. Does that mean this is okay? Is my personality such that I should do this too? Is it weird if I insist on not doing it?

Who are my friends going to be? Should I choose to imitate the way they speak? Would that be “me”? If I work hard to “be myself” is this applauded and respected or considered pretentious and rude? How do I explain things to people who think on an entirely different wavelength?


All this is to explain to you why I may guffaw if you ask me if I’m getting “pretty fluent.” The answer is a discouraged “no.” If I ever get there years from now, can I call you for a ride home?


Bonus material:

Ironically, I’m not even sure how to say “fluent” in Spanish. The following conversation has happened to me more than once (traducido por tu beneficio):

“I’m not very…fluente.


(now with less confidence) “I’m not very fluente. That no is a word?”


“How says one ‘fluente then?”

Fluente.’” (accompanied by nose scrunch which communicates non-understandment)


(another nose scrunch. long pause.)

“What I want to say is that I don’t talk good. What’s opposite of talk good?”


“No…well yes. But no. Uhhhh…I talk bad, so I’m trying to—I’m testing to—I want to say that I’m not very…”

“Aw, you’ve learned a lot of Spanish.”

“Uh, thanks. I want to know how to say that I’m not…Doesn’t matter. I’m sorry.”


  1. Chase! Loved this post :) Not only did it allow me to dwell on how much your brain must hurt all the time (as a mostly non-second language speaker), but I really resonated with the part about identity in speaking another language. I see this all the time in my classroom with my 20 students I've had for two years. In fact as our second year draws to a close, I feel like I am just starting to get a glimpse into their personality/identity/voice (call it what you will). That first time they say something that reflects them and not just the language prompts/phrases they've been taught is always so exciting. Language nerd out over. I stand in awe of your lack of fluency.

  2. What does fluency mean in English?

  3. Great post! Laughed and understood perfectly what you were saying because I am fluent in English :-). So true.


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