The Perils of a Monolingual (or Mono-and-a-half-lingual) Existence

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Q: What do you call someone who speaks two languages?

A: Bilingual.

Q: What do you call someone who speaks one language?

A: American.

Yesterday, the kids and I went to the gym in our building to use up some energy.  After some time on the ellipticals and with the weights, the gym attendant approached us politely and fired off 30 seconds of rapid Spanish.  I recognized a few words: esposa/wife, manana/morning, gymnasio/gym, and some words that were obviously numbers but I couldn’t quite process them quickly enough.  But it was his vaguely embarrassed body language that signaled that we were doing something wrong.  But what could it be?

This happens to me multiple times a day.  At this point, I could write an entire textbook for people attempting to communicate with others who don’t speak their language, with harrowing practice scenarios.  The summary version is pretty straightforward:

  1. Speak slowly.  If you feel terribly patronizing and awkward, cut your speed in half and you’ve almost got it.
  2. Speak clearly.  I routinely make a sound like, “I’m-uh-nuh” that native Californians can recognize as, “I’m going to.”  Don’t do that.  For gods sake, give me some consonants to work with.
  3. Break it down.  When someone doesn’t understand you, the correct response is not to add more words.  One idea at a time, por favor.  Otherwise, you’re explaining differential equations and I don’t know we’re talking about math yet.

My defense with those folks who have not yet read my (alas, unpublished) guide is to first signal good intentions — smile apologetically, to illustrate my overpowering shame that I don’t speak Spanish well and my undying gratitude with their patience — and tell them “We study Spanish but I no good speak.” Then I go call-and-response-hymn on them.  I focus on the first sentence and then repeat the gist of it back to them as a question.  Por ejemplo, my conversation with the gym attendant went something like this:

Gym guy: [mostly-unintelligible Spanish]

Me: My husband here this morning? Yes.

Gym guy: [more unintelligible Spanish, starting to sound familiar, but he’s clearly adding more words in blatant violation of Rule #3]

Me: We live here? Yes.  For one month. [I am starting to wonder if this is small talk]

Gym guy: [unintelligible Spanish — even longer this time — with head shaking so I am clearly answering a question he didn’t ask]

Me, taking a bit of a guess, based more on body language than words: It is necessary to pay?

Gym guy: [unintelligible Spanish, nodding and getting a card out]

Me: I’m so sorry.  We don’t know. [I still struggle with the past tense] How much?

Gym guy: [unintelligible Spanish, writing a number]

Me: For one hour?  One week?  One month?

Gym guy: [unintelligible Spanish accompanied by some subtle eye-rolling at the ridiculousness of my question]

Me: Okay.  We need to pay.  43,000 pesos each person one month [about $20].  But for two weeks instead?

Gym guy: [A number I actually understand!  There is rejoicing!]

Me: Good.  I understand it.  But how to pay?

Gym guy: [Lots of gesturing outside, pointing to a number, a few words in Spanish of which I recognize only “BancoColombia”]

Me: At BancoColombia, we are paying this much to this number? [I’m not sure how this all goes down at a bank, but I’m ready to show the gym guy mercy and inflict a similar conversation on the bank teller later.  You know, to spread the pain of dealing with me.]

Gym guy, nods

Me: Gracias and I am so so sorry.

Gym guy, smiling in relief that this incredibly painful episode with a clearly mentally challenged and strangely pink woman is over: Tranquilo [which is the catch-all Colombian version of “No worries,” and is really quite sweet of him since Eric’s been going to the gym every day for a week and thought that the gym guy was just quite persistent in offering personal training sessions.]

This whole process could literally eat up hours of my day — as well as all the spare time of the poor Colombians whose paths I cross — so I have to use this strategy sparingly.  Which means that on top of trying to learn Spanish, I’m constantly triaging the interactions I don’t understand.  Can I simply smile and nod in this situation?  (Everyone who talks to us on the metro.) Do I hazard a guess at what they are saying based solely on context and body language? (Waiters and cashiers.)  Was there an upward trajectory of the their sentence so they are awaiting a response? (Taxi drivers.  Our security guard.  The waiter when I obviously answer a question he wasn’t asking).

Luckily, this is becoming a bit of a team sport as we all learn more.  The question comes at us and we put our heads together and pool what we gleaned — “It sounds like they don’t have it.” “He said 500.”  “I think it comes tomorrow.”  Then the call-and-response proceeds.


Learning and practicing Spanish is gumming up the English gears in my brain.  After a day of Spanish lessons and interactions and flash cards and music, this is what it sounds like in my brain when I try to write a sentence:

The roads [Is that calles or carreras or carreteras?  Oh, wait, I can call them roads.  But there’s probably a better word in English.  Hmmm.  Camino, avenida.  Those are Spanish too.  Sigh.  Let’s go with roads.] wind up [Up like alta or up like arriba?  What was the difference again?  I think it’s in my notebook.  Or maybe this is the time to use suber…  Oh, right.  English.  “Wind up” works.] the colinas [Or montanas? Duh. Spanish again. You’re writing in English.  Let’s try “mountains”.] surrounding Medellin [I don’t know “surround” in Spanish.  What do I know how to say?  Cerca de?  Al lado de? Neither are right but what could I add to make it clear what I mean?  Todo de Medellin?  Oops, I’m thinking in Spanish again.]

Frankly, it’s exhausting having two programs running at all times.  But it’s making me strong, right?  Right?!?

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