Self-Loathing and the Second Language

se habla espanolI’m writing this from Costa Rica, where I have ensconced myself in una escuela intercultural in an attempt not just to improve my Spanish, but to get over my fear of speaking it. I had another one of those “no shit” revelations last week, to wit: I can choose to be happy about how much Spanish I’ve learned instead of being disappointed in how much I’ve forgotten or have yet to learn. Yeah. Who would have thought that was an option? Not me. It’s certainly not my default position. I have always been disappointed in my failings in Spanish, at least ever since my very first year of studying the language in 7th grade. I grew up in a neighborhood of Mexicanos y Puertorriqueños = I should have already known the basics before I ever stepped into a class. Seemed reasonable to me at 11. And at 40.

Once again, it comes down to self-loathing. And I kind of knew that, but it became specific today, in, like, 3 distinct examples. First (SL#1), when I noticed a group of students casually talking in not-English from across the patio of the school, I assumed they were all more fluent in Spanish than I. That was further reinforced when I found out that I was assigned to a level by myself, while everyone else was taking classes in pairs or larger groups. Loser! It turns out, I’m actually more advanced than the others. What were they speaking? German. Knowledge is no match for crushing insecurity.

SL#2: It is true that, as a half-introvert, while here I “need time alone to absorb what I’ve learned and just chill.” But it is also true that I avoid staying in people’s homes (in this case, host families) because I carry a constant low-grade conviction that there is something inherently wrong with me, and I will inevitably offend or weird out whoever I’m with.

SL#3: In the afternoon, I was admitting to another student that even though I have quite a few opportunities to practice Spanish in Minneapolis, I only do it in class and in private: online, with books, maybe to my dog. The woman I was speaking to – years behind me in her education – asks fluent, native-speaking coworkers to talk to her in Spanish, to only speak Spanish when at lunch with her, etc. To me, this woman is a superhero. Why don’t you? She asked. Shit, I’ll never see her again: “because I am filled with shame that I don’t speak better than I do.”

This is actually a little more impressive than self-loathing, if I do say so myself. I’m taking it to the next level, y’all. I feel particularly loathsome speaking my flawed Spanish to native speakers because I carry not only my own inexcusable inadequacies, but the weight of the white world on my shoulders (the “non-Hispanic white” world). It’s not just that I don’t know Spanish; it’s that I am a gringa, estadounidense, monolingual, Global North/ern oppressor of people and cultures and countries that my forefathers designated as literally “lower” than me, cartographically speaking. And I don’t even have the decency to use the subjunctive correctly.

Other than that, I’m having a lovely trip. Seriously. You who know, know. SL is just a thing you live with, like a stiff neck, until & unless you can massage your way out of it. The realizations are far more intrusive than the loathing itself. The best and worst thing about SL is it’s all bullshit. I’m making it my new mantra: “this is bullshit. this is bullshit. this is bullshit.”

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