Rekindling Myself: How My Second Language Took Away My Personality
From social faux pas to admin nightmares, my year abroad stripped my character down and built it up again.
My mother used to tell me that there’s no use bashing your head against a brick wall, ‘it doesn’t hurt the wall’. She also told me ‘don’t worry Worry until Worry worries you’. All these little phrases I have carried with me into world and are at the core of how I go about my day. It’s the way I comfort people when they’re struggling and how I empathise and relate to other people. Now that I have embarked on my year abroad and avoid speaking English as much as I can, there is a lot of linguistic empty space that I need to fill in very little time.
Finding my Place in a Foreign Language
I have studied Spanish for about a decade (seven years if you start counting when I finally paid attention). The first three years just bounced off of me like water off a duck’s back and I retained absolutely nothing despite the teachers’ best efforts. Conjugation, prepositions, colours, anything outside your basic greetings was completely lost on me.
It wasn’t until I met Miss López at 14 that I started to open up to learning a language. As a first-generation university student and the first to speak a language other than English, I didn’t think trying would get me anywhere. I haven’t got money coming out of my ears, so when would I actually go to Spain to make good use of all this learning?
Miss López was also from South London, she was a quirky secondary school teacher who occasionally burst into song and threw a physics book out the window. She’d also learned Spanish at school and built a life for herself across Britain and Spain. She was the first person to show me exactly what could come of learning a language. From there, I started engaging and found out that I love languages!
From my A-Levels to university, I knew that the big year abroad was somewhere down the line. Before I turned 20, it was very much an abstract concept that I could always push to the back of my mind, even when I was attending seminars to prepare for it. But when the time came, the panic didn’t actually set in until I was about two weeks into my first semester in Spain.
I was trying to navigate Spanish bureaucracy (which is its own Dantean circle of hell); I was trying to integrate myself into a new culture and I was trying to make friends. But in my struggle to string the right words together in the right order in the right context, it dawned on me that I couldn’t show other people who I am. My confidence with natural conversation was at an all-time low as the pandemic lowered my contact time with Spanish. People saw my pale skin, blue eyes, and light brown hair and wanted to speak English with me. Any attempts at humour were way out of the question.
How could I make friends when my character was lost in conjugation errors and misgendering inanimate objects? How could I make a connection with other people when every phrase, every saying, and all the flavour in my speech just didn’t transfer to another culture in the same way? It was an isolating experience that the intimacy I feel with my friends back home just wasn’t happening. I could laugh at the jokes that they told but I had nothing to offer in return.
I started to feel that I was only defined by the suffering that the farcical bureaucratic systems had caused me. I didn’t want to be a person that could only emit the bitterness of their circumstances. The all-encompassing anxiety of my status in a foreign country and its flimsiness terrified me which made light chit-chat extremely taxing. However, this is not a sob story.
After the first couple of months, particularly when I had some time to refresh over Christmas, I find myself calmer. My problems with the administration had since been exacerbated but even that couldn’t get me down with my new confidence with my second language. I returned with a clearer mind and a stronger will to put myself out there, even if I looked silly. My priority was showing my personality, even the grammar was atrocious.
It was in this new approach of language learning that my own personal flare surfaced again but in an unexpected way. It wasn’t exactly who I thought I would be. I resurfaced as a more tranquil person, a deeper listener, and with much more nuanced non-verbal humour. It didn’t have quippy comebacks or razor-sharp wit in my second language (I realise I’m arrogantly implying that I have any of these in English) but I could make people laugh more with facial expressions and silent reactions. I found a sincere relief in this as I felt I no longer had to try so hard to reach out to other people.
The low period I experienced in not being able to express myself brought forward newfound patience with myself and other people. I didn’t beat myself up as much over the little mistakes and I didn’t take other people’s rudeness so personally. I was more secure in my lack of understanding of little nuances between cultures and found humour in my ignorance over frustration.
In this way, I welcomed back my identity, not in spite of my second language but because of it. It was a truly transformative experience that I would recommend to anyone. Through pushing past the most difficult part of integrating into a new environment, I left behind the parts of me that weren’t helping me.
What Comes Next?
I suppose I lost my fight against bureaucracy as I had to leave Spain and start the visa process all over again. But, again, this is not a sad story. I come back with a new thirst for experience and a headstrong approach to spontaneity that I didn’t have before? I feel that a part of my sanity snapped off somewhere along the way. The quirkiness of modern language teachers now makes a lot more sense to me. I’m much more able to entertain myself in a self-contained way.
Like Miss López, did I find the rest of my life in the country of my year abroad? I doubt it. But through it all, I now have a greater eagerness to look for it in more places than before. I have a stronger desire to find the rest of my life in a more tenacious, spontaneous, and humble way.