This is Your Brain on Languages

Picture Rachel Leigh Cook smashing things in a kitchen because she can’t remember how to say “huevo revuelto” in English.


“I went to a place that did phone freedoms.”

Immediately after I said it, I realized that I had translated “liberación de móviles” literally from Spanish to English. I laughed as I pictured a cell phone dressed like William Wallace shouting, “they can never take away our freedom!”

My brain has become an interesting mix of grammatically correct and “IDGAF I’ll say what I want” ever since I moved to Spain. When I got here, I had a very low level of Spanish even though I had taken two intermediate classes in college and two joke classes in high school. Sure, I could ask where something was and I knew colors and numbers. I could get the gist of simple articles. A few phrases had stuck in my head, with “me gusta la lechuga,” being one of them.

It’s a good sign that my brain is doing this. It means that Spanish is becoming more natural to me. On my way home for Christmas, I had a layover in NYC that gave me enough time to leave the airport and see a friend. We went to dinner at a taquería, and let me tell you, that messed me up. The menu was in Spanglish. Do I say the name of the dish in Spanish or English? Will I sound obnoxious if I pronounce it with an accent? It was one of those Ricky Bobby “I’m not sure what to do with my hands” moments except I didn’t know what to do with my words.

I told the server what I wanted in English, “the pulled pork tacos with pineapple.” When she asked me if I wanted, “tacos al pastor” I automatically replied “sí.” I quickly apologized.

Learning a language has been an exciting and occasionally embarrassing process. In the past, I was too embarrassed to try speaking Spanish with other people. My listening and understanding improved, but my speaking level didn’t get much better because I wasn’t letting myself make mistakes. Eventually I realized that if I wanted to learn Spanish I had to make those mistakes. Often you get a funny story out of it. Once I told a friend that I liked to drink my tea with gin instead of ginger. I mean sometimes we all do that, amirite?

As would be expected, forcing myself to speak with natives has greatly improved my Spanish skills. And when I’m at home in my room and I don’t feel like talking to my roommates, I try to read or listen to music in Spanish. The thing about your brain being on a language is that you need to maintain it all the time. I get plenty of English, my native tongue, because I teach English and Whatsapp with friends like a mad woman. With Spanish I have to try harder to make it a part of my life. Reading has helped with that, and so has Enrique Iglesias’ latest booty-shaking album.

For the record: the Spanish version of Bailando is much better than the English version.

Before I came to Spain, I spent hours on the Internet looking for ways to improve my Spanish and what other things people were doing. There are random blog posts here and there, some highlighting mistakes like the ones I had made. I wish I had read more of those mistakes because oddly enough, I think it would have given me more confidence to know there were people like me out there telling their friends that rigatoni is kind of like “pene”, or penis.

Trust yourself and the people around you to correct the mistakes you make. Sorry to repeat what everyone else will tell you, but it’s really the only way you learn. Insert that fact about Thomas Edison and that really high number of failures he had here.

And for the love of God, don’t be so shy like I was. You’re only doing yourself a disservice. The world gets a lot bigger when you learn another language. More friends, more possibilities, more experiences. If you’re American like me, you know that more is good.

Despite my improvements in both my level and confidence, there is still one thing I won’t ask for in Spanish. I refuse to ask for a straw. When the words for “straw” and “handjob” are one letter different, and your brain is on languages, you never know what’s going to happen.

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