language, Spain

Pros And Cons Of Living Your Life In A Second Language

“So, life in Spain, huh? Your Spanish must be really good!”

“Uhh, yeah, I guess it is, I’ve definitely improved over the years. And I got the C1 certificate.”

-Conversation I’ve had approximately 7,000 times

When you live your daily life in Spanish, your language skills are bound to improve. Sure, if you’re an English teacher, your work is all conducted in English, but the other parts of life mostly happen in Spanish. Socializing with Spaniards, shopping, doctor appointments, residency paperwork, taxes, paying rent, finding apartments, communicating with roommates and so on.

Had to speak mucho castellano to find and also leave this piso

I spent last week completely free from work, since all my English students were on holiday for Semana Santa. And I spent the majority of it in the company of S, a Spanish speaker. Not just a Spanish speaker, but one from Extremadura. So all my conversations happened in Spanish, as well as all TV watching, all movies, everything. Sometime in the middle of the week, my brain broke just a little bit. I hadn’t realized just how much English I do speak on a daily basis and how much easier it is to express myself in my native language! (Duh, Dina.) At one point I finally declared that “necesito hablar en inglés con alguien ya!” So I had a quick Skype call with my parents and exchanged a few audio messages with a friend, and then felt better.

In general, not just during Semana Santa, my main face to face relationships and interactions are in Spanish. La familia política speaks zero English. The cuadrilla (política?) as well. I always try to join activities where I meet Spanish speakers. And aside from watching the American series This Is Us in English, a lot of my entertainment is in Spanish – and with no subtitles.

As far as the news, I watch La Sexta, El Intermedio (“Con un chis, con un chis, con un chis chis chis…”), and sometimes La Cuatro or Aragón Televisión. I’ve listened to hours of coronavirus news and press conferences involving María Jesús Montero, Fernando Simón, and the darling Isabel Diaz Ayuso (facepalm). I like being in the know about what’s going on locally. I also really enjoy watching documentaries and reports on La 2. And I watch a lot of Spanish movies, as well as movies in Spanish.

Superb entertainment

I’m obviously not the only person in the world who’s in this situation. People all over the world are living outside their home countries, whether it’s because they want to be, or they feel forced to be. They’re navigating life and even maintaining their significant relationships in a second, third or even more foreign language. Trying to keep up with current events in their newly-adopted countries. A lot of people throw in the towel or just decide not to even try, and they stay in the linguistic bubbles of their fellow compatriots. I get that. I’m not sure I’d make the same effort if I hadn’t studied Spanish in high school and college. Would I feel the same motivation to watch humorous news shows in, say, Swedish?

After having a moment of clarity during my all-Spanish week, I’ve realized there are a number of pros and cons to living one’s life in a second language.

The Pros

1. Stimulating the brain

It’s long been said that learning a new language can change your brain. According to researchers at Penn State, “Second language experience-induced brain changes, including increased grey matter (GM) density and white matter (WM) integrity, can be found in children, young adults, and the elderly; can occur rapidly with short-term language learning or training; and are sensitive to age, age of acquisition, proficiency or performance level, language-specific characteristics, and individual differences.” Basically, it doesn’t matter your age: you will pump up your brain’s density and strengthen those neural networks. And this is just for learning a new language. By spending time immersed in the language every day, the neural pathways get even stronger.

2. Filtering your thoughts

Have you ever wanted to just stuff your foot in your mouth after saying something totally ridiculous that you said without thinking? No? Just me? Well, it happens to me a LOT less here in Spain. Probably because when I want to say something, I need to filter it through my mental translator to make sure I’m expressing what I want to say in the right way. I spend a lot of time planning what I’m going to say before making phone calls or going to appointments. And if I say something dumb in Spanish, people will just smile politely at the silly foreigner who’s still learning Spanish.

3. Learning new things every day

Seriously, do you know how many times I say “ah, sí?” or “ahhh, vale” a day? Or even if I don’t say it out loud, I might have an a-ha moment looking at a sign or ad, or listening to the conversations around me where I learn a new word or hear a word used in a way I hadn’t considered. Example: I learned what a “rebeca” is (a cardigan!) this summer while listening to a conversation where I asked, “who’s Rebecca?” It makes you feel a bit humble to realize you still have a lot of learning to do!

4. Boosting confidence

Yes, I can navigate my way around just about any social situation, travel experience, or bureaucratic appointment. Knowing that I have that ability really gives my self-confidence a boost if I happen to start feeling down on myself. Having my mom visit me skyrocketed it to a new level, as she seemed quite impressed with how I was able to communicate with everyone. This is something you should feel proud of!

5. Learning cultural nuances

You can get into some fascinating second-language conversations after you’ve been living abroad a while. Listening to local people talk about politics, the civil war, LGBT issues, and more can deepen your understanding of the country. One of the keys to really understanding conversation, for me, was learning frases hechas. They pop up ALL the time, and it’s nice to not have to pause to think about the individual words. I still have a lot of them to learn and figure out how to use!

6. Connecting with local people

This may be obvious, but you’ll make a lot more local friends when you’re able to speak their language decently well. There are cool websites like Conversation Exchange where you can connect with people wanting to learn your language, and I’ve done this a number of times. But I still enjoy showing up to activities or classes that have nothing to do with English, so I really have to pay attention. And that’s where I’m able to make connections with local people. I don’t always make friends, but I do have some nice chats and expand my network. Furthermore, the more you practice and deepen your knowledge, the better you’ll understand the conversations around you. Although honestly, I’m not sure whether that’s a pro or a con.

Reading in Spanish: also fun

The Cons

1. Mentally tiring

Yeah, it’s not all fun and games! Some days, especially after several days of only Spanish, I find myself just wanting to check out for a while.  When that happens, I need some time to unplug, listen to my own thoughts, and have conversations in my own native language. Remember Pro #1? Yeah, your brain muscle is working hard, so it needs rest just like all your other muscles!

2. Filtering your thoughts

This is both a pro and a con. While it’s nice to be thoughtful about what you say, sometimes the filtering process takes so long that the conversation has moved on before you get a chance to speak up! Additionally, I sometimes find I’m not quite able to express what I want to say, so I just don’t say it at all. And then later I feel like a pent-up volcano. Fun times!

3. Humor doesn’t always translate well

Humor is often talked about as one of the trickiest parts of learning another language. It’s always a struggle to find the right moment, the right balance. I’ve fallen flat a number of times, even in brave moments, thinking I was saying something funny that didn’t resonate with the group or the person. My humor style, which tends to be sarcastic, isn’t usually well received, so I’ve had to learn how to be less sarcastic. (Once I was waiting with someone to go into surgery, and when the nurse came out to take her into surgery, I jokingly said “pásalo bien!” to lighten the mood and make her laugh. The nurse looked at me like I was completely crazy.) Here in Spain, it’s easier for me to stick with English humor in my classes or use self-deprecating humor about the silly things I’ve done. Similar to back home, the secret to humor is knowing how to read your audience.

4. Lost in translation

Living life in a second language, your mind is constantly translating, even if you’re not aware of it. Unfortunately, many times I find there isn’t an exact translation for what I want to say. So I rethink the concept I wanted to express, and then try to say it how a Spanish person would understand it. See Con #1: Mentally Exhausting. And honestly, some things are better expressed mixing both languages together if you’re talking to someone who understands both! (My polyglot former roommate Lisa from Belgium understands this perfectly.)

5. Forever the foreigner

No matter your level in the other language, you’ll most likely always feel foreign to some degree. Even if you speak really well, your accent won’t go unnoticed, and neither will the intonation you use to try out that new frase hecha you learned. Just embrace your multilingual, multicultural self and don’t worry about becoming someone you weren’t born to be.

6. Regional dialects

Learning to speak well and live your second-language life in one region doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be great at it in another. Think about how it must be for a newcomer to the US to spend a few years in Boston, and then move straight to Texas! That’s kind of how it would be to live in Santander and then move to Sevilla. You’ve got a whole truckload of new accents and expressions to learn, and you might even need to unlearn some of the ones you used before.

Sevilla: notoriously hard to understand the accent

While there are ups and downs in language learning, living your life in a second language is rewarding and stimulating, and well worth the effort! You just need to tener huevos and don’t be afraid to meter la pata.