I never “learned” English or German; both languages are apart of who I am.
However, learning a new language from scratch exposes weakness and necessitates vulnerability, not something that is always treated with kindness from others, or even from yourself and the new person you become with a new language.
Years ago, I read about someone who, on an exchange to a foreign country, was left with a sudden stripping away of her personality when she couldn’t let it shine with her usual linguistic wit.
She languished until the topic turned to her specialty of astronomy. When she suddenly contributed to the conversation, everyone was stunned, with one person blurting out they thought she was somewhat “slow” since she never talked.
I’ve had that loss of personality too, but more, a shift in identity by necessity. Especially after taking Spanish classes since seventh grade and being married to a native Spanish speaker for more than 10 years.
I should know more Spanish. This runs through my mind whenever I’m confronted with a situation in which I know that my language skills will peter out, especially when ordering food.
There’s a shop close to my house, but away from the main streets, with the parking lot usually filled with older work trucks, their beds filled with ladders and buckets. It’s a place that sells deliciously fat-laced barbecue, along with a stack of warm tortillas.
The man behind the counter looked at me and did a slight readjustment of his stance, telling me he was bracing himself to speak in a language he wasn’t comfortable in. I did the same. He didn’t know in what ways we were similar.
In Spanish, I ordered a pound of meat. He smiled and went to dish it up. And tortillas, too, please, I added.
“Your Spanish is good,” he said, which told me he’s the type of person you want to try your skills on.
“No, it’s not,” I told him. “I just married a Mexican.”
Unfortunately, proving my point, I conjugated the verb incorrectly.
I am at the awkward stage of learning Spanish where I can understand a good deal if I’m focused on the conversation.
But that type of active listening is incredibly draining, and it invariably happens that the moment I take a mental breather to stare at the wall, it must match my pondering-the-universe look because that’s when I’ll get pulled into the conversation.
It’s the waiter, who had been chatting in rapid fire with my husband, suddenly turning to me. It’s the super sweet Tio Fidel who always startles me when he comes up to chat when I visit.
It’s the mother-in-law who took pity on me in a group of distant relatives and suddenly asked me what I thought about eggs, when I was silently debating whether the Tecate in Mexico tastes different than in America.
That’s when I told eight people that I hadn’t had many thoughts about eggs, a very dubious success at conversational contribution.
It’s the TikTok algorithm that is trying to figure out who I am because, much like on YouTube, which will throw me cleaning-supply commercials in Spanish (incorrect in at least one measure), I will watch videos in Spanish.
And after a decade, I understand enough tropes from Mexican and Mexican American families that I can find humor in common stereotypes.
What the algorithm doesn’t do, unlike people, is judge. It’ll plop you into a car with someone chatting about their experience being a first-generation American like I am. They have the same disconnect when thinking about the culture whose language feels like home and realizing it’s the same culture that thinks less of you when you don’t speak your ancestral language correctly.
I relate to the “no sabo” kids, the children of native Spanish speakers who learn only some of the basics of a language that sounds like home, the ones who are grown and thinking about their identity in a country that doesn’t always accept them while knowing that the country of their parents wouldn’t either.
I’ve grown, too. I’m both the No Sabo Wife, who has bits of foreign identity grown on me like coral to a reef, and the no sabo kid who still likes to have conversations in German alone in my head while pondering the universe or debating the merits of beer in my cup.
— Cassie McClure is a writer, millennial, and unapologetic fan of the Oxford comma. She can be contacted at [email protected]or follow her on Twitter: @TheCMcClure. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.