Speaking a new language isn’t always pretty. I went from speaking eloquently in English to cobbling simple sentences together in Spanish.
I sat crisscross-applesauce-style on the floor of a ritzy banquet hall at a Colombian country club. I had been hired as a marketing writer by an international fraud protection company a month before and I was joining my new coworkers for a day of company team-building.
Most people roll their eyes and quietly grumble when faced with mandatory occupational team-building, but I love it. Maybe it was the years of playing team sports or just my natural desire to please my superiors, but I will gladly hold my coworkers’ hands and try to shimmy through a hula-hoop without letting go. Challenge accepted. Let’s do this.
The program leaders achieved their objective, at least in my case. I felt closer to the coworkers I had already collaborated with, I met new people and the session instilled in me a greater sense of pride for my new company. But the event also made my lack of eloquence in Spanish glaringly obvious.
One activity was a word game that required me and a partner to conjure up a story one word at a time. “Once…upon…a…time…there…was…a…girl…” The words I contributed were simple and I appreciated that my partners purposefully chose words I knew. This activity also required me to speak in the past tense, which I usually avoid at all costs. My Colombian friends probably think I am on the run and experienced something sinister in the United States because I rarely talk about my old life. Little do they know, I just hate using past tense verbs in Spanish.
Another activity required the group to get from one side of “hot lava” to another by tight-roping across. Teams had to pull one rope to make it tight enough to walk on, while another rope was used to help the person balance. At one point during the hour-long challenge, the instructor said the only people allowed to talk were the employees who had been with the company for less than three months. My team looked at me and looked back at them.
In the United States, I would have no problem leading a team and often volunteered to do so. But Colombia was different. I was the foreign coworker who smiled too much and had to be spoken to slowly. I was the one who didn’t laugh at a joke that had the whole marketing department howling because I didn’t understand the punchline. I couldn’t be an effective leader with my limited Spanish, but I tried anyway. I mostly shouted out simple words of encouragement to anyone who was attempting to cross the hot lava. I would tell my team which member would go across next and who needed to stand where.
At the end of the day, we all gathered in another circle and were expected to share what we learned. It was my turn, but the instructor said I could pass. His offer was well-intentioned, but felt patronizing. I didn’t forfeit my turn and cobbled together a couple of sentences about meeting new people and working together.
It is a strange situation to write words for a living in one language, but struggle so pitifully to speak them in another.
Much like a cashier earning minimum-wage wants his customers to know he was a doctor in his home country, I want my coworkers, friends and the woman who sells me arepas on the street, to know that I once spoke eloquently. I want them to know that I acted in plays as a child, won public speaking contests as a teenager and worked as a broadcast journalist as an adult.
“I’m not stupid, I’m just not from here,” is a phrase I sometimes mutter with a shy smile while talking to security guards or taxi drivers.
My favorite writer, David Sedaris, wrote an essay entitled “Me Talk Pretty One Day.” In this essay, he describes living in France and trying to learn French from a cruel teacher who enjoyed ridiculing her students. I am lucky enough to be surrounded by Colombian friends and coworkers who are patient and listen to what I’m trying to say, instead of how I’m saying it.
I know one day I will talk pretty. I just wish it would hurry up and happen already.