Friday, July 1, 2011

Communication consternation: final chapter

There is always an awkward pause when locals ask me what I like best about Buenos Aires. It’s not that I don’t like anything about it. I really do have much affection for this place (more, e.g., than I did for Zurich last summer). It’s just that this doesn’t seem to translate directly into a specific, identifiable thing-preference. This is a city better savored slowly, hence its appeal is atmospheric rather than (at least for me) easily separable. But I’ve come up with a response to this question that is true, if not pleasing to Portenos, who seem to love their city in an unconditional, beyond-qualities sense.

What I say is that my fave thing about summer in Bs As is the chance it’s given me to practice the espanol. And this, Br. Rdrsp., is indubitably veracious. Though I’m still not in the promised land of Fluency, I can see that promised land from the not-so-bad neighboring territory of Comfortably Conversational, and I’m pretty pleased with that outcome.

This still entails ups and downs. To wit, this AM on the way to stop in at my language school, I found myself picking up instinctively and easily snippets of conversation as I passed people by. A man holding a little dog came up to a woman and said, “Mirá que te traigo!” (“Look who I’m bringing you!”) A woman walking past with her daughter said, “Éso no querría.” (“I wouldn’t want that,” with the difference being that “querría” is conditional while “quería” would be past imperfect, and I totally heard and was pleased that I noticed this.)

But just when I was feeling pretty good about the old espanol, I got on the bus and said to the driver, “Uno veinte” to indicate the fare I wanted, and he said, “Yes?” in English, suggesting that I’d somehow failed to communicate this very basic and simple information acceptably in Spanish. (I refused to capitulate, repeating slowly “Uno. Veinte,” which worked but did not make me feel like a bilingual champ by any stretch of the imagination.) And again this afternoon when chatting with a waitress at Locos x Futbol, all of a sudden, poof! I had some context and then I lost it, and in an instant failed to really fully understand what she was saying, which was/is really embarrassing.

The thing is, of course, that while sometimes there are quantum leaps in language understanding, it’s a process that also includes moments of failure (and even requires them for trial-and-error reasons) even when you more or less get how to speak. And there will always be snooty folks who point out that you’re clearly not a native speaker by responding to you in the tongue indicated by your accent or, worse, pretending not to understand. Maggie, the jefa at my language school, speaks perfect English, but told me that she often has trouble following English when its spoken too quickly, or in a dialect, or with mucho slang.

So the good news in all this is that my Spanish is much, much better than it was when I got here, and that the idea of speaking Spanish with something like fluency no longer seems like a ludicrous pipe dream. But learning a second language, at least after childhood, is a long, slow, and never-quite-perfect process, as even people who are well-versed enough to teach classes in English (as a second language) have told me. This all is perhaps best captured by the observation of a very-Spanish-fluent acquaintance who remarked that you’re pretty good at Spanish when locals tell you you’re quite good at Spanish, because they mean that for someone who obviously doesn’t speak it as a first language, you’re doing well. But you’re only really good at Spanish when locals never remark that they’re impressed by your Spanish, because they take it for granted that you can speak fluently, and are no more likely to compliment your language skills than they would those of a native speaker. The first of these thresholds I crossed during my time in Buenos Aires. The second still remains far away.