In early 2014, when I decided to move to Spain, I was looking for a change. Yet, I wanted to feel prepared to embrace this change and hence, I took a crash course in Spanish. Two years prior to that, I had taken a similar course in Japanese where I had also learnt to write (more about this in another post) and this was good enough for me to get through business meetings in Japan interspersed with more than occasional hand gestures. Having felt a similar level of confidence in Spanish, I moved to Spain in August. For a good part of the day after I had arrived in Barcelona, I didn’t have to flash my Spanish skills. I finally stepped out that evening for a walk and all along I practiced my Spanish in my head. After carefully crafting a basic sentence in my head, I had mustered enough courage to ask “¿dónde está entenca? ” (Where is Entenca?). Except, there was one problem, I wasn’t equipped to process the response to this question because I was unfamiliar with the accent and unprepared to comprehend and translate so many sentences in my head at once. But soon after, I started Spanish classes in school where we were taught in Spanish. Yet, due to peer pressure, we all constantly sought English translations to make sure what we learnt makes sense.
I practiced and constantly improved my Spanish in the grocery stores, cafes, restaurants and buses but it was always the same conversations over and over again. Somehow somewhere along the way, I had stopped seeking the change that had brought me to Spain. I was seeking comfort in familiarity and embracing fear of change subconsciously. A fear of losing what the little I had accomplished in Spanish thus far. I was no more comfortable speaking any Japanese as through diligent practice, I had successfully replaced all the Japanese with Spanish in my limited foreign vocabulary database, mostly because there was no context to compel me to retain it. When I moved to Jakarta in June, I refused to learn any Bahasa for the first few weeks since I feared losing Spanish just like I had lost Japanese. But soon enough, survival instincts kicked in and I had no choice but to start communicating in Bahasa like “Lotte Mart tahu anda puk?” (Lotte Mart, you know?). I tried very hard to decipher the language on my own, through people’s expressions, hand gestures and tones. I may not have picked up the exact words, but I started to construct phrases with the sounds I had heard. I barely picked up a handful of words but for the first time in over two decades, I could think in a new language because I never learnt it by translating from English unlike with Japanese or Spanish. I felt fearless as I was not bound by grammar rules or exams, but by a compelling environment to just communicate.
However, I felt exhausted in a way that I’d never felt as a child trying to communicate in Kannada or English. As I flew out of the islands, I knew I would not have to use Bahasa ever again (for a while at least), I turned on my Spanish mode as I struggled to make conversation with the guy sitting next to me on the plane. He introduced me to his friends who I spent the transit in Turkey with, yet I constantly felt a fear of failure. When I moved to America, this fear grew stronger as I knew it was not okay to lose Spanish as I’d need it back in January. I have watched over 10 movies and two TV shows in Spanish ever since I got here, but I can tell you that my Spanish hasn’t improved. My level of comprehension might have remained the same but my ability to communicate has definitely deteriorated as I am not challenged to respond. I stay afloat without learning to swim because I choose to be swept by it in its own direction and not engage in a two way relationship by challenging it in the opposite direction.
P. S – On a related noted, here’s a beautiful piece of writing by Jhumpa Lahiri on her relationship with Italian.