You have the vocabulary of a child.

It was a simple transaction in a small fruteria in Castillos, Uruguay. The shopkeeper was just trying to make pleasant conversation, but I have the Spanish vocabulary of small child. I am sure he was probably just making a joke or commenting on the quality of the apples I was purchasing.

A month earlier when I boarded the plane to Uruguay I was nervous, but confident that my Spanish would be “good enough.” I had taken 6 years of Spanish in High School and I could read it fairly well, so what could go wrong. Let me clarify; conversing and reading are two completely different things. I can read, write, speak, and listen to Spanish, but put any two of those actions together and I am in trouble.

I don’t mean to imply that I am completely incompetent at the Spanish language. I can read Spanish at a higher level than many people who can converse with ease. I think that Spanish education in the U.S. focuses too much on reading and writing and as a result my speech never developed. I think it would have been better learning to speak before learning to read and write. After all that is the order in which we learned our first language. Several friends of mine have learned Spanish entirely while traveling. I may have a larger reading vocabulary than some of them, but at the end of the day I need to be able to converse as well.

It’s hard to convince someone that you’re not a complete idiot despite your Ivy League degree when you can’t describe what you need or understand the stated price. It’s isolating to be unable to describe your thoughts because they are to complex for your speech level. The only thing you can do is try and explain your way around what you can’t say no matter how long that detour is.

Practicing your language skills can be difficult because you are embarrassed of how poor your understanding is, but you just have to get over yourself. Avoiding practice is a sure way to stay incompetent. You have to except the fact that you are working with the vocabulary of a child and will have to build from there. You may have the experiences and education of an adult, but you’re going to have to learn to speak all over again.

A few words of hard learned wisdom:

  1. Get over yourself
  2. Just talk even though you do sound stupid
  3. Be inquisitive: ask what the names of things are
  4. Talk around the words you don’t know
  5. Hand gestures are fair game

I will never know what that shopkeeper was trying to tell me, but hopefully the next time I won’t have to miss out because I don’t understand.