Sunday, August 21, 2016

Just When You Thought You Could Finally Call Yourself Bilingual

Let's Be Honest

Okay, I haven't actually been calling myself bilingual. I think I mentioned in a previous post that that word implies pretty much equal comfort in both of the languages you speak. I certainly do not speak Spanish as well as I speak English, so I have not claimed "bilingual" as part of my identity. One day, maybe, but not yet.

I am, however, quite proficient in Spanish. Enough so that I have started considering myself fluent. What's the distinction between bilingual, fluent, and proficient? Here's a link that may be of interest:

Defining Levels of Proficiency Avoids Confusion

So, according to those definitions, I am not bilingual, but I really did believe that I was fluent. But then an experience opened my eyes, as experiences are wont to do, and now I'm back to calling myself merely proficient.

Where I've Been and Where I Am

I began my Spanish journey five years ago. I took no formal classes, but that does not mean I did not go deep in my study of the language. I read three books in Spanish--real books, not children's books--during my first year of study. I watched Telemundo all day every day, just trying to understand a word here and there. I bought CDs of songs in Spanish and listened to them in my car (discovering some really good music along the way!). After that first year I branched out even more, downloading the Duolingo app and completing the Spanish for English speakers course, followed by the English for Spanish speakers course. Then I started the Portuguese for Spanish speakers course just for fun, but haven't finished it yet. I joined a Spanish conversation group. I interacted with Spanish speakers, in Spanish, in online forums. I bought grammar books and made myself spend time practicing verb conjugations. My point is, if you're obsessed enough, you can become fluent in a language without the aid of formal classes. And I really thought I was fluent. Until...

The Dream

I am a certified Yoga instructor and it has been my dream, ever since I began my study, to teach Yoga classes in Spanish. It took me a long time to pursue this seriously. Despite the fact that I had learned a huge amount of the language without the aid of a teacher, for some reason I thought if I wanted to know enough Spanish to teach an exercise class I would need to take a class myself. But there were no "Spanish for Yoga Instructors" courses to be found. And where I live I couldn't even find any Yoga classes being taught in Spanish. Attending one of those was what I considered to be the minimum prerequisite to teaching a class of my own. So I put the dream on the back burner. Until...

If you spend enough time wanting something, you eventually get to the point where you can't put it off anymore. You just have to do it. And I had reached that point with this Yoga idea. I had to start trying. So I modified my Google searches. Instead of looking for classes I could take, I started looking for helpful websites. Here are a couple that I found:

The Tough Realization

So I started working my way through my Yoga class, taking all of the stuff I usually say in English and translating it to Spanish. My realization was that I couldn't even teach half of my class in Spanish. I needed to look up nearly every other word. For example, a phrase that I say often in my classes is, "Scoot your right foot in a couple of inches, bend both knees, and sit straight down." Okay, so I knew how to say "right", "foot", "both", "knees", "sit", and "down". But there's a lot more to translating that sentence than just knowing those words. How does one say "scoot" in Spanish? I mean, it's kind of a cutesy word in English, right? So what would appropriately be its Spanish equivalent? I have no idea. And then "sit straight down"? When I say it in English I know I'm not literally sitting down. I'm just bending my knees and lowering my body a bit. But would that somewhat figurative language mean the same thing in Spanish? Maybe, but I just don't know. And if I can't say "sit straight down", what do I say? I've been at this for two days now, and I'm maybe a quarter of the way through my class. So much for being fluent in my second language.

My Advice to All My Fellow Language Enthusiasts

My takeaway is that I needed to do this. It was the necessary next step in my Spanish progression. The thing that will take me one step closer to actually being fluent and, hopefully, one day, bilingual. I would advise anyone who is trying to learn a language to engage in an activity like this. Take a subject you know a lot about, and try to prepare a presentation on said subject in your target language. You'll be amazed at how much you still don't know.


  1. I've done this with Dutch, the language I'm learning, and even though I made grammar mistakes with word order (which is very very hard in Dutch) and with some terms, I could make a 6-7 minutes recording of me talking about Lévi Strauss and about his ideas on art (it was like an introduction to a class I teach at college level :) ). So, yes, I agree with you, it's a very useful thing to do, and it is then when you get to see how close or far you actually are from your goal!

    1. This has been a daunting experience for me, but I also feel encouraged by it because it's shown me what it will take for me to finally reach my goal. I believe if I ever do have the opportunity to teach a class in Spanish, especially if it is a regular, weekly thing, then I will finally be getting enough practice in the language to actually become fluent. But I need to master some key terminology before I'm ready to take that step.