My Linguistic Overthought


languagesI have always been envious of those you can speak another language. A former colleague of my wife’s is up to about seven and seems to pick them up by osmosis and can start conversing with locals within a matter of hours. He seems to have a good ear and natural ability. I have neither.

In part, I blame high school French. I had two years and all began well until verb conjugations (how in the world are est, suis, and fus all variations of the same verb?) and that myriad of tenses (pluperfect?!?). Not to mention those words that have stuck around all of these years and like to pop-up now and again. Why do I still remember the French for “werewolf”—when will I ever need that?

Living near Los Angeles, I often come across surprise (if not shock) when traveling in Central and South American countries that I don’t speak Spanish. It’s not for lack of wanting to, or lack of trying for that matter. I’m on my third go-around with Rosetta Stone currently. Admittedly, the furthest I’ve ever made it was to the end of Level 2 and the second of those absurd, let’s-strip-you-of-any-confidence-you’ve-developed Milestones each level ends with.

But I shouldn’t blame the software. My problem is overthinking. Whenever someone asks “¿Como estas?” I go into overthought: What’s Spanish for “good” again? Is that really how I’m feeling? “Comme ci comme ça” would be better. No wait, that’s French. Okay, “bien” will have to do. Now what’s “and you” again? In French it’s “et vu” (or “et tu” if you know the person well—damn you high school French!), so shouldn’t Spanish be “y tu”? Wait, what about “y usted”? Doesn’t that also mean “and you”? Am I missing some contextual reference here?

By now the person who has asked has either determined that I’m deaf or a moron and simply moved on. Meanwhile, I’m left feeling like an idiot. While I don’t mind playing the dumb American tourist to get me through an awkward, sorry-but-I-can’t-even-seem-to-remember-three-words-of-your-language moment, I’m not a dumb American tourist. I want to learn about the language and the culture, I want to converse with locals, I want to go where only locals know about.

I just need to learn to stop the overthought.

2 thoughts on “My Linguistic Overthought

  1. I feel your pain. I’m living in Cairo and working on my Arabic (still in the baby beginner phase). I’ve run into a couple of problems. One is that when someone says something to me in Arabic, I am taken completely off guard and say something really thoughtful like, “Huh?” At that point, whoever was talking to me has decided that I don’t speak any Arabic and repeats in English. Lost opportunity to practice. Another problem is that lots of people want to practice their English with a native speaker. A woman in our neighborhood said hi to me one day and asked a couple of questions (in English) about my baby. We chatted for a couple of minutes in English, and as I moved on, I realized that everything I said in that conversation I could have said in Arabic. On the plus side, the great thing about working on Arabic here is that everyone really appreciates it when foreigners make the effort.

  2. Yeah, that pause always causes a dilemma. On the one had, I want to say “Wait, wait, I can do this.” On the other, I know they are being nice by switching to English. Good luck with the Arabic. In an ideal world, I’d learn Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese (Mandarin) and, in that way, feel like I had most of the world covered.

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