My Linguistic Overthought

January 2014

I 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 overthinking.

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