Learning Spanish or Not

Sometimes We Can’t

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Fourteen years ago, I left my mostly white American life to live and love with a growing group of Hispanics, starting with my adopted daughter from Honduras and my husband from Argentina. I am surrounded by the Spanish language.

I studied French in high school and one semester in college but, not only was it never useful to me, I wasn’t proficient at speaking it. Oddly, I could read, write, and understand well, but the words refused to travel from my brain along my tongue and out my mouth.


At the time, I lived in Maine where French was the most common “other” language, but the version of French spoken there was Canadian French. French is the native tongue of more than 7.2 million Canadians and, like most non-English-speaking immigrants, they arrived in Maine and other northern states speaking their mother language.

French settlers in Canada were isolated from France, causing their language to be frozen in time and not changing along with the French spoken in France, resulting in a more archaic version of the language. And, understandably, Canadian French was greatly influenced by English, creating many Americanized words. Pronunciation and vocabulary between the two versions of the language vary, and Canadians who immigrated to the U.S. adopted even more Anglicisms.

Because the French spoken in Maine is so different than the French taught in schools, I didn’t have the opportunity to practice speaking outside of the classroom. In addition, socializing with the children of Canadian immigrants, I picked up some of their Canadian French words, not realizing they were unacceptable in school.

I was never a proficient or even adequate speaker of French.

Surrounded by Spanish-speakers, I hoped to have a different language-learning experience.

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I paid very close attention to the Spanish spoken around me, asking questions, imitating sounds. I purchased how-to books, CDs, and computer programs. I immersed myself in the language, studying every chance I got.

However, as soon as I attempted to participate in a conversation, the words and phrases I learned wouldn’t come out of my mouth, as though a roadblock existed between my brain and my tongue!

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I asked my husband for help. Not a good idea. Argentinians have a street language called Lunfardo that permeates their Spanish. I was soon learning Lunfardo phrases and words that no other Spanish-speakers knew. And, my husband’s impatience as a teacher made my language learning more stressful.

So, I hired a tutor, sharing the cost with someone I knew who wanted to learn Spanish.

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Six months later, the other student was fluid in simple conversational Spanish while I struggled to say anything beyond simple greetings. I knew lots of words. I knew whole sentences. I could write them but, just as with French, I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth, and the words that did escape were pronounced incorrectly.

My tutor thought I was too timid and encouraged me to speak Spanish at home.

I did. But no one understood me.


As with my tutor, my family corrected my pronunciation over and over again but still, I couldn’t get the words right.

My husband would say a word slowly, enunciating each syllable. I would repeat exactly what I heard him say. He would sigh:

No, no, that is not what I said. Listen again.

Again, I would listen. Again, I would say the word exactly as I heard it. Again, it was wrong. No matter how many times I repeated a word, it was wrong.

I had language brain freeze!

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As soon as I attempted to say something in Spanish, my brain would freeze — words and phrases I knew by heart would disappear from my mind.

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On the rare occasion when I was able to mumble something, my pronunciation was wrong, often to the point of no one understanding what I was saying.

I continued with the tutoring for a couple of months. In spite of the hours my teacher worked with me, I could not have an elementary conversation in Spanish. I decided to stop wasting our time and my money, reluctantly giving up on Spanish.

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At the time, I worked with a brilliant attorney who excelled at all she did. One day, assuming I spoke Spanish, she asked if I could sit in a meeting with a Spanish-speaking client whose English was poor. With embarrassment, I admitted to not speaking the language. The attorney was surprised.

I explained my language-learning attempts — both French and Spanish — and the humiliation I felt for failing at both.

She told me this story:

I was a top student all my life. Top of my class in everything until I took French. For the first time, I struggled. In high school, I slipped under the radar because I could read, write, and understand it, but college was a different story. The class was completely conducted in French, and I was as lost as I would have been on the streets of Paris.
With verbal skills as a major part of my grade, I was failing. My professor called me in for a meeting. He asked one question: Can you sing? I replied that I was tone deaf and had a horrible singing voice.

He said:

Well, then it’s highly unlikely you will learn to speak a foreign language well. If you can’t hear the tones and pitches in music, you can’t hear them in a language. You may become proficient in reading, writing, and understanding a language but speaking beyond simple questions and minor conversations will be very difficult, if not impossible. I suggest you take a language that no one speaks. Take Latin.

She smiled:

I did and aced it! Plus, it was helpful with my law career.

She looked intently at me and asked:

Can you sing?

I replied:

No, I’m tone deaf.

She exclaimed:

Well, there you go! You may never speak Spanish but at least you understand why you can’t. You’re not a failure; you’re tone deaf!

Since that conversation, anytime someone tells me they have struggled to speak another language — and I’ve had that conversation many times — I ask if the person is tone deaf. Every time the answer was yes.

Maybe moving to a country that speaks the language you want to learn, where you will be exposed to it 24/7, will help circumvent tone-deafness, but I know many tone-deaf Spanish-speakers who immigrated to the United States many years ago and still can’t communicate beyond rudimentary English.

You may argue that tone-deaf children learn the language of their culture, and I will agree and add that they may also become proficient at a second language at a young age. Age being the important factor here.

Hearing is exceptionally fine-tuned for the young, even for those who may not be able to sing due to some degree of tone-deafness. With age, hearing worsens. Those who started off slightly tone-deaf become profoundly challenged to hear subtle changes in sounds and inflection as they age. A tone-deaf child may have the ability to learn a second language if exposed to it while still very young, but that ability lessens with each year that passes.

Often those who immigrate later in life and who are not tone deaf, such as my mother-in-law, may struggle to speak the language of their adopted country because of hearing loss. Even a minor degree of age-related hearing loss can lessen the ability to hear new words clearly enough to repeat them correctly. After many failed attempts at conversation, the person doesn’t try anymore.

In conclusion, I have done minor research on the effects of tone-deafness on language learning; what I’ve shared here is from my personal observations and experiences.

If you are not able to carry a tune, you may not be able to verbally communicate in a second language but, heck, there’s always Latin!

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