Life in two languages – let me tell you.

A couple of weeks ago, I got the chance to hear Brian Houston – founder and principal pastor of Hillsong Church in Sydney, Australia – speak at the Hillsong Buenos Aires branch that has become our home church here.  I’ve loved Hillsong’s music and mission for years, so it was incredibly exciting to hear him speak – and then something funny happened.  When he took the stage, his Australian accent was so thick coming through the PA system that sometimes, it was easier to understand Chris’ translating in Spanish than Brian speaking in English!  We all looked at each other in disbelief, and kept cracking up about it all the way home.  But listening to that sermon in two languages made me think about all the other ways my brain jumps from one to the other, and how far I’ve come in my ability to balance both since I’ve been here.

The place was PACKED  – this was pretty much the best view I got of Brian. Still an incredible message and a fantastic opportunity to hear him speak!

Something you should know about me: my mind is constantly juggling five or six thoughts at once.  They might cross paths peacefully, or they might collide, and sparks fly as they fight one another for my undivided attention – something I’m beginning to think doesn’t even exist.  Sometimes it’s distracting, like in the middle of a conversation, and focus is something to work on, but sometimes it’s useful, like for writing papers or thinking ahead.  I’ve gotten used to the idea of my mind as a computer’s internet browser, cluttered with tabs opened all at once.  I just never knew that those tabs had the capacity to run in different languages at the same time.

That’s the fascinating thing about my experience abroad for liberal arts language studies – I’m never wholly immersed in one language or the other.  Maybe the experience would be enhanced, more effective, if I was – but I don’t necessarily think so.  All of my classes are in Spanish, but I still get to a certain point where I need to process some of the more complex information in English to really learn.  When I leave the house, I’m usually listening to music in English, but the second I walk out the door, a part of my brain shifts to Spanish.  I’ve discovered it’s possible to hear both Taylor Swift in my earbuds and the couple talking next to me on the colectivo at the same time, and understand both.  I can place my order with the waiter in a café at the same time that I type a quick text back to my mom.  It’s not so much that I’ve gotten good at translating – it’s just that I’ve had one foot in both worlds for so long now that I’ve become capable of linguistic multitasking, I can process both simultaneously.  Thinking about what I’d like to do with my abilities in Spanish moving forward, this makes perfect sense.  If I’m teaching language in a secondary school, I will constantly have to be speaking both languages to transfer my students’ understanding from one to the other.  So I can’t complain – I’m literally practicing everyday what I’ll be doing as a teacher.

But thinking in two languages has its challenges: I find I’ve settled into a habit.  My stream of consciousness is a mix, darting back and forth between one and the other in the same breath, with misplaced words and haphazard sentences.  Anytime I buy anything here, the transaction takes place in Spanish.  When I grab breakfast at the Miami airport during my layover on the way home next month, what language my words will come out in, I have no idea.  Those little phrases that I use walking down the street – gracias, chau, permiso, perdon, dale – they’re going to make an out-of-place appearance my first month back in the States, more than a few times.  A world where everyone speaks English will probably scramble my brain for a bit.  But the familiar always has its advantages: speaking Spanish is always hardest for me first thing in the morning, while I’m still half awake, unfortunately for my poor host parents.  Sometimes when I wake up, it takes some extra energy to get me out of bed, knowing that I’ll have to push reset on the connection between thinking and speaking as soon as I open my door.  I’m sure I’ll be astonished the first time I mumble some jumbled mess of good morning at my roommate only to have her respond without blinking an eye.  Being understood on the first try, or with my mouth full, or when I’m looking the other direction, or when my pronunciation is off, is something I’ll never take for granted again.

There’s another part of going home that makes me nervous, even though I brushed off my advisor’s concern back in March.  I’m finishing my Spanish minor here out of necessity – two majors and a minor and graduating on time, oh my – so the question becomes not, what happens when I’m no longer speaking Spanish daily, but rather – what happens when I’m not speaking Spanish at all?  How quickly will I lose the command I’ve gained here over the language?

The Vanderbilt Spanish department sends me weekly emails during the school year about events and workshops on campus – I’ll admit I’ve ignored them in the past, but that’s about to change.  The Spanish department also sponsors a service organization and for the first time, I filled out their fall interest survey and plan to participate somehow.  I have some books in Spanish.  I know some songs in Spanish.  I have quite a few friends who also speak Spanish.  The intentionality behind it just changes – it becomes my responsibility to find ways to learn the language I’ve grown to love.  And that makes me appreciate these last four weeks here even more than I already do – because I’ll kind of miss living in two languages.

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