One of the most exhausting things I’ve done so far was to pay unwavering attention to a college professor who harangued me for about two hours. Paying attention is something that always requires effort, but the curious thing about all this has been how hard it is to strain my way back into the channels of Spanish fluency.
I remember when I first arrived in Bogota I was frustrated at how little Spanish I was exposed to because we know a lot of people who speak English and we have our class all in English. It is no problem for me to concentrate in English and to deal with such things as require patient and extended attention—as long as they’re worthwhile. But for Spanish I only had occasional conversations which didn’t try the range of my Spanish all that much, and the news every night.
It has usually been a strain for me to re-acquire the mode—or whatever it is—of reading Spanish. It is very difficult at first, and not much enjoyable. After a while, however, I am able to return to the book with less difficulty and more pleasure. I do not have the pleasure of Spanish letters they way I have the pleasure of English letters because my Spanish vocabulary is limited and I feel the constriction of that in a way I no longer experience in English (I used to experience the same thing, only backwards, when I was 12 years old and came out of Colombia to attend school entirely in English).
It requires a great deal of concentration for me to pay attention, and then the effort of assuring the person addressing me, adequately—with jokes, with comments that indicate comprehension of his gist, etc., all that adds up. I want that sort of thing because I feel handicapped without an adequate range of vocabulary; I also want it because have the experience of English words suggesting themselves and I have no translation or I suspect the translation I have is a false cognate. One needs the exposure and the mistakes in order to learn and overcome shortcoming. Especially when you are trying to convey a sense of intelligence and competence in areas of higher education, this thing can produce a certain strain.
I have noticed that many Colombians who have learned to speak English with a great deal of fluency have never managed to cut, as it were, the channels in their brain through which the language flows. They still make mistakes that betray a Spanish sort of thinking in regard to grammar and syntax (the reverse is true: Americans who have a fluency of Spanish but betray English ways of grammar still). And this is my fear in my use of Spanish. I have a good accent that can readily throw them off—though I still feel I have to concentrate not only to speak but to listen to myself to make sure I don’t have any subtle English-broadening-of-the-vowels creeping in. Most people who exchange words with me seem to think I have a good command of Spanish and will either say I speak very well or even tell me it is perfect (one needs to factor in that they are comparing, so it isn’t a true judgment; in other words, they are pleased that I don’t speak the way that, say, ambassador Brownfield unfortunately does, even though that isn’t saying much; they’re not expecting me to speak like a native speaker). My problem, however, is that I have caught myself and have been caught getting tangled up in the syntax from time to time, especially in conversations that go beyond the exchange of basic information.
I hope the channels of my mind can be cut or reopened so that the Spanish can flow through them more readily, but right now I’m a little weary. It is a long road out, I suppose, but a proper sense of inferiority is a very useful thing. The things that are worth doing are the hard things, and the pleasures worth attaining are the ones that come after much effort. At least I hope so, because the road before me into a comprehensive grasp of Spanish such as will lead me to the land of highest Spanish competency is one that looks long and difficult.