Finding Childlike Freedom in Your Second Language
One of the realizations I’ve had about learning Spanish is that it forces me to be honest with myself. In English I parse my verbs, use analogies and often intellectualize my feelings, all in effort to avoid being truly forthright and vulnerable.
In Spanish, I don’t get that option. I don’t yet have a wide range of different verbs and adjectives with nuanced shades of meaning. O sea, there are plenty in my head, and I follow along in books just fine, but few have found their way to my tongue.
If you ask me for my opinion, you’ll likely hear an answer that starts one of these ways:
Creo que – I think that (but literally, the stronger I believe that)
No creo que – I don’t think that..
Me parece que – It seems to me that…
No lo sé – I don’t know…
Me da igual – Whatever/It’s all the same to me/Doesn’t matter to me
That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. I’m not competent enough to be slyly evasive in Spanish; I either don’t talk, or I get on with it and say what I mean pretty directly.
It reminds me of how young children are necessarily, sincerely, and brutally honest. I looked in the mirror the other day, and noticed signs of aging in my face. I then recalled when I was a little girl I had asked, “Mommy, why do you have rolls [lines] on your forehead when you raise your eyebrows, but I don’t have any? When will I get some? I want some!”
There was no thought to how that message would be received by my mother, nor any effort made to temper its reception. I hadn’t learned how to do that yet. I liked how it felt when I ran my little fingers across her forehead, plain and simple.
Likewise, speaking your second language forces you to take ownership of what you think, whatever that may be.
Complexity and Nuance in Understanding
Without discounting simple, direct honesty, there does come a moment when you yearn for more complexity of thought. You want to express not only how you feel, but to consider the world through someone else’s eyes.
There’s a beauty in being able to say, “If I had known you needed me, I would have come sooner. I should have asked more explicitly, but, you know, you also could have told me what was going on.”
Your needs, my intentions. My regrets. My feelings about a possibility not seized.
How do you express regret or reflect on alternate paths without these words? How do you explore a world of infinite possibility both past and present? These words are absolutely necessary for analysis and decision.
I found myself frequently running into these issues. I’d be speaking and all the sudden I would go mute, unable to move forward. Linguistically I had no idea how to form the thought I was having, not even poorly. It was a feeling of powerlessness that I hated.
I Really Should…
While I longed for all these words, I especially needed ‘should.’ For as long as I can remember, should has ruled my life.
I should have sent my résumé sooner; I should really call my parents more; I should be the best at everything I do.
I should write more; I should be less judgmental; I should put on makeup everyday; I should be planning my meals each week instead of winging it.
So when I began working with my Spanish tutor, I told him my most important priority was how to accurately express “should, would, could” sentences in Spanish, especially about things in the past.
Please teach me, I said. My ability to communicate is suffering without it.
Linguistically Opening the Emotional Floodgates
My tutor explained the grammar. I followed along. Conceptually, we were all good.
Then he asked me to practice by telling him out loud some things I would do differently now and explaining what I should have done at the time.
I found myself bristling with irrational hostility toward him. At this point in my life I was questioning some big decisions I had made. I was feeling very much like a failure.
I don’t even know you dude, and WTF, you want me to just start talking about all the things I should have done differently? How can I tell you that I shouldn’t have lost my temper inappropriately that one on time, or that I shouldn’t have been so selfish when my husband really needed my support?
That I shouldn’t have lied to my sister in elementary school, telling her that her friends were making fun of her outfits and calling her “Jeans and Sweatshirt Girl,”when really it was I who though she should change her look. If I had know it would cause her to stop being friends with them, and change the face of her friendships moving forward, I never would have done it! You think I’m just going to start telling you all my regrets? WTF?!!
Let’s not forget the poor guy—probably bewildered—was just doing exactly what I had requested and was indeed paying him money to do.
Overcome by the weight of real regrets and second-guesses, my imagination was too blocked to really participate. To many real things were coming forward, and none felt safe to say aloud.
So from the center of my tempest in a teapot, I defiantly spat out something along these lines: Debería haberme puesto una chaqueta hoy. Ojalá que hubiera elegido los calcetines verdes. (I should have put on a jacket today. I wish I had chosen green socks.)
He politely asked me to try a little harder. I wanted to punch him.
Wonderful Servant But a Terrible Master
What I realize now is that ‘should,’ to put it frankly, is an hijo de puta, and listening to him all the time is exhausting.
Isn’t one of the stated goals of my blog to be kinder and more accepting of who I am instead of continuing to flagellate myself over how I think I should (there it is again) be? To find a sense of intrinsic worth, which doesn’t stem from what I achieve, or how others perceive me?
For the sake of my happiness, I am actively trying to become less of a perfectionist and to wrestle some control back from my automatic thoughts. I’m struggling mightily with this.
Because I feel like I should be able to do it by now, and I’m frustrated it is so hard. Yes, folks, I’m being a perfectionist about my efforts to become less of a perfectionist. (Hostia.)
To whom am I so damn obligated? Where does this sense of duty come from? Este puto ‘should’… ¿Coño, quién me lo dice?
But seriously, have you thought about who the voice in your head is? Mine is the definition of a frenemy—sometimes I feel motivated by the chiding, but most of the time I feel depleted. Maybe it’s Regina from Mean Girls, haha.
The thing about all those ‘shoulds’ is that they seem so well-intentioned. It’s almost as though they are saying, “I only want the best for you, and that’s why you should…”
No Seriously, F*** You, Book!
My youngest sister gave me Zen and the Art of Happiness for my 30th birthday last August.
No other book has pissed me off as much as this book.
One of the concepts I understood right away: You are the author of every next moment. That made sense to me. I could see that despite what happens to me, I will make decisions moving forward, and those decisions have bearing.
But its main concept is this: Everything that happens to you is the best possible thing that can be happening to you at that very moment.
That is the sentiment to which I responded, “No seriously, go f*** yourself, stupid book!”
I can’t pretend to sum up the message other than to say that valuing something as good or bad is only a construct of the mind, so why not decide all things are good from the outset and then you will be primed to see the world that way.
Consequently, there’s no room for ‘should’ or ‘should have’ in this philosophy. You just are. You just exist. Whatever is happening or has happened or will happen is
I’ve read the book three times. Each time it gets a little bit easier. Can’t say it’s a favorite yet, though.
Pensando en el presente
The question I ask myself now, after having learned the necessary structures, is whether there’s a loss of innocence that accompanies this grammar gain.
I am no longer the same language-learning child who was unable to express a second guess or alternate course of action. What if I’ve let ‘should’ and ‘should have’ out of their cages, only to attack me and dominate my Spanish thoughts as well?
I can only hope that I am protected by their novelty. Each time I use ‘should’ in Spanish, it is with direct intention. I think about number and tense. I am far from employing it as an automatic thought.
Además, expressing duty and obligation in Spanish doesn’t come courtesy of a little helper word that in some ways become invisible to the brain (e.g., should eat, should call, shouldn’t complain, should, should, should, should—it doesn’t even mean anything on its own at all!)
Spanish uses ‘you must’ or ‘you ought to’ (deber + a verb) or ‘you need to’ (tener que + a verb) to make clear what the duty is, and whether it is past or present depends on how that verb is conjugated. Plus, debts and needs can exist on their own.
“Panorama sagradafamin (16137085578)” (Interior of the Sagrada Familia) by Jose Hidalgo from Punta Arenas y South Lake Tahoe, Chile y California – Panorama_sagradafamin. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Right now it’s 2:45pm on a Tuesday. Normally my mind would be saying, “You should be looking for your next freelance project instead of writing,” or any number of other things.
Who says? If I said it in Spanish would that still be true? Do I have a real need to look for the next project at this very moment?
Do I owe (present tense of ought, as in ‘you ought to’) it to someone else right now to change what I am doing? Will something dramatically shift in this world if I’m doing that instead of this?
No. No. No. De ninguna manera.
There is nothing I should be doing. Nothing at all.
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