Sometimes I’m the only one who doesn’t get the joke. Some days I smile, reassuring everyone that I’m not on the outside. Some days I even laugh a little. At other times I just keep my face blank … After all, is there any shame in not getting it? I can’t decide.

I speak fluently, even rapidly. My brother, upon hearing my conversation with my mother-in-law, rolls his eyes and tells me to slow down. I don’t. But when I’m here, I can never speak fast enough. Every error stays in my mind, reminding me that what I thought about myself was wrong. Is wrong. Most do not correct me, but some take it upon themselves—without my permission—to remind me of my errors. When I speak, the words tumble out, seemingly unstoppable in their urgency. I say things I know are wrong in the heat of the moment, just to keep the words flowing, just so my listener doesn’t have to wait five seconds. I can’t bear to make them impatient. I find it insufferable when they correct me, tell me agua is feminine.

“I know,” I mutter to myself. “Why don’t you correct me on something that I actually don’t understand?” But on the outside I am silent.

During the fall semester of my senior year at Indiana University, I met some students from Hong Kong, who were spending a semester in Bloomington, Indiana, of all places. We had so many memories together: dinners in their high-rise apartment building filled with foreign students, watching The Nut Cracker at the IU Auditorium, Thanksgiving in my hometown. When I remember their halting English, I wince to think I should have ever been patronizing to them. It is quite astonishing to recall their level of fluency and willingness to travel to the frigid Midwest, a region not known for diversity or even good weather. Yet there they went, and thus we all made lifelong friends from across the world. I can only hope to have been gracious and welcoming to them, to have never made them feel like they were on the outside looking in. Perhaps that was impossible. I must have tried, though. Can one ever truly feel like a native when the language is foreign? I can’t say. It hasn’t been my experience.

In high school, a schoolmate made a joke about someone’s mother’s broken English. I didn’t laugh, certainly not, but neither did I say anything, and I certainly could not understand what my classmate felt at hearing her mother held up as an object of ridicule. Even now, after five years as the foreigner in the crowd, I only have the smallest grasp on what that feels like—to be somewhere, to be the perpetual outsider. A small language barrier is still a barrier.

Most of my peers will never feel like outsiders. They will always live in a place where their first language is the language, and if they do travel, English is and probably will be the lingua franca, at least for the foreseeable future. To speak English is to have the world in your hands, to know that wherever you go, all you have to do is walk up to the counter and say, “English, please?”

26 thoughts on “Barriers

  1. Totally agree. Planning my third trip to visit my daughter in Spain and vow to be brave to try my limited knowledge of Spanish. I know her friends will be kind.

    Sent from my iPad


  2. So very true. The worst is when people “mock” my accent. They’re not doing it to hurt me or taunt me, just repeating what I said in my guiri voice because it’s curious to them I suppose but I’m so, so aware of it already, and I try so hard, that it’s always a blow.

      1. Sally, I was thinking of one Spanish “friend” in particular when I wrote that. Definitely a “friend.”

  3. I definitely know this feeling, and it was one of the biggest reasons I always felt like I’d never be able to stay in Spain permanently. But even though people correct you at times, you have to remind yourself that you don’t judge non-native English speakers every time they make a grammatical mistake, and most people don’t do the same to you in Spanish. I’m sure the majority of people are just incredibly impressed with your Spanish skills!

  4. I love this, Kaley. Story of my life. People are kind, but at times, I feel like such an outsider. And I don’t have the proficiency that you have. At some point, I will have some degree of fluency, but never enough.

  5. Yes yes yes. While inside the classroom I feel confident in knowing how to correct people, I never do it in the real world unless someone explicitly asks me. Man, I KNOW how it feels to be stumbling over a second language and there’s such an ambiguous line between what’s OK and what feels like censure in terms of corrections.

  6. I hate when people correct something I said wrongly in French but that I already know. I get all defensive and frustrated (they might think I’m impolite but I’m fine with it, really). They don’t understand how frustrating it is to always be the foreigner and not knowing if they are repeating it because they don’t understand what you said the way you said it, or because they think your accent’s cute, or because they’re just plainly stupid and ignorant and obviously mocking you. So many, many times I just don’t even bother to talk, or reply. I nod and smile. It’s much easier.

  7. nay…may a person be corrected from time to time there is not anything wrong with it whilever such a person has got great knowledge or command about the language…..i think that a person should be offended only if he or she is making a huge effort with little knowledge, then the person should feel offended or not merry at all after being corrected.

    i would never feel offended if someone corrected me while, say, having a conversation at high speed, for i am fair aware of my knowledge and command of English, which is brilliant, impressive and supreme, so a mistake de vez en cuando cada mil años does not hurt me.

    my opinion.

      1. Sally i think that it depends on the situation….may you know someone, say, a Spaniard who is unknown then perhaps you would feel offended if he or she corrected you, but if the person is a friend for example or someone even closer, say, a lover, your official partner or your sister in law then why would you feel offended or upset?

        i think that there is something even worse: to correct a person in its own native language as i have done with several English speaking people when they have made mistakes, or at least when they have not spoken what i think of good English.

        i even did correct a North American girl i had an affair with because she would always use certain North American words , so i would always “teach” her the British words us Spaniards usually think that are more correct whether it is right or nor……but i say to you that.such a thing really upsets a person, jaja

        1. All of the examples you give are examples of rudeness. You say “it depends,” but as an American (which you are not), I assure you that in American culture, it is rude to correct another person’s grammar, pronunciation, or manners – including in the situations you describe.

          1. i respect your opinion, but i disagree fully…sometimes you may even correct someone during a nice conversation full of confidence while, say, sitting on the sofa, watching the telly or having a beer, with both persons smiling and challenging each other to see who is right, etc

            if i told you that “truck, pants, soccer or shoulder” are not correct because i think that “lorry, trousers, football and breakdown lane” are more correct or better, you would for sure feel offended or upset, for i am unknown…but if i were your brother in law or your best friend, why would you see it badly?

            by the way i think that you mean North American culture, or at least US culture, for America is full of countries and i do not think that you speak for Argentina, Colombia or Brazil for example.

          2. Pedro, yes, I do mean U.S. culture (maybe North American culture). Cultural norms are not really a matter of opinion.

          3. so have i not the right to give an opinion even about cultural norms? please be not a tyrant :)

            by the way in Spain us usually refer to USA as Norteamerica (NorthAmerica), i know that officially it is not correct as it does refer to Canada, USA and Mexico.

  8. If it makes you feel better, my parents have been married over 30 years and my father still corrects my mom’s French (as do my sister and me). We still correct my father’s English even though he speaks it pretty well though he does odd things like always pronouncing the h in “herbs” and saying things like “guee-tar” for guitar.

    My relatives in France will help me out with my French if I ask them and will correct me even if I don’t ask. I do get embarrassed when corrected but it helps me remember for future mistakes. You’re not alone.

  9. I definitely agree Kaley. Learning or perfecting a language is difficult but I know that if I want to learn and improve, I have to accept some corrections even the very minor ones. I understand how it feels though to be corrected for every thing even when you know you made the mistake. I ask only 2 people in my current town to correct me because I trust them. It’s all part of learning. For example, today I was trying to speak to my friend and coworker in Spanish after a month of not having a heart-to-heart and for some reason, I was shy and nervous and I felt embarrassed to say words or phrases in case I was wrong. Usually, I just say whatever and I don’t struggle that much and I can get my point across. Plus, I was in Spain during the holidays so I was speaking to someone in Spanish almost everyday. Another great example of language barriers is an episode of Modern Family in Season 6 where Gloria has problems communicating in English but speaks about how it’s hard for her to be understood in a family of native english speakers.

  10. It just takes time…..imagine our students: they have been studying English since the beginning of their early education, and even after 10 or 12 years they still can’t string a decent sentence along in the simple past.
    Don’t let it get you down!
    One day it will all click and you won’t even notice… :)

  11. I feel exactly the same Kaley and have also been here for five years. Just the other week someone (an intelligent woman too) mimicked something I was saying for no particular reason. I undoubtedly felt annoyed and hurt by this and said to her in English “We can speak in English if you prefer”. I could never imagine doing the same to someone with an Indian accent or Chinese accent.
    I think as linguists we have reached our plateau, but we have a lot to be proud of! We may not always feel like it, but we are pretty well integrated :) We’re always going to be ‘guiri’ but that is also because Spain isn’t as used to ‘outsiders’ as our countries are. We’re still a novelty and some people don’t know how to deal with that!

    1. Kim, that was always my response to people who mimicked me: “Would you prefer to speak English?” It is the perfect response in my opinion.

  12. I just wrote a post like this about how hard it is to learn the language. I don’t consider myself fluent at all, so I can’t even imagine how frustrating it is for you. I find I can hold my own when I’m talking to someone by myself, but when Spanish people are talking to each other — I find myself smiling and nodding, smiling and nodding ….

  13. “Can one ever truly feel like a native when the language is foreign?” THIS is exactly what I’ve been getting so frustrated with lately – I always feel like an outsider. Add in the fact that everybody knows I’m a foreigner from miles away based on my appearance, and it can be really, really isolating here.

    I recently explained to a friend just how hard it is to miss out on all those little things. You can speak a language fluently and still miss out on a ton of information, and people don’t even realize you’ve missed it.

  14. Reblogged this on Afsha M. and commented:
    I agree with this a lot. Being in a foreign country where the language isn’t your mother tongue is very tough especially when surrounded by dozens of native Spanish speakers or Europeans who seem to have it easier to learn another language other than their own. They look at you like ‘wow she’s dumb I said the simplest of things’ but it isn’t as easy as it seems. Hearing this one language in a multitude of accents from several Spanish speaking countries as well as other Eastern and Western European Countries can also make it extremely difficult to comprehend what many people are saying.

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