Church of Santo Domingo

The two times that I have been the most distraught since arriving here has been over the language. My inability to understand circumstances has catapulted the cliché in over my head to new heights and demoralizing lows.

These situations mimic things that have also happened to me in Thailand. It is not difficult to remember when I didn’t understand what was expected of me and how that position made me feel. Even when you know that you can anticipate mis-communications or mishaps with language or culture, there is nothing quite like experiencing the moment in the raw.

Yesterday was my first Spanish class and I didn’t think I entered the classroom with particular expectations, but I did. I expected Beginner’s Spanish to be beginner’s Spanish. But as soon as I stepped in my classmates and the instructor started speaking in tongues, I mean en Español or castellano. She was asking questions about us and everyone, although not perfect in their speech they were able to understand, entiende, kao jai what she was asking and what everyone else was saying. As this continued I could feel tears tickle my eyes.

My other four classmates were also fellow teachers that I knew and we’re extremely helpful explaining what was going on and giving me the vocabulary I so dearly lacked. But I could hear and feel the in over my head wave wash over me, then thankfully the first hour was over and we took a break.

During those blessed five minutes, one of the teachers casually said to me, “I think she’s just assessing our abilities.” as if reading my mind, he helped me stay afloat for the moment. But like all moments, it was fleeting because when we returned the teacher gave us a worksheet.

We were to fill in the appropriate words which was no where to be found on the handout. But what did I know? The whole thing looked bigger than I could hold. My neighbor whispered, “I don’t know why she isn’t explaining this.” Then she wrote down the words we needed and tried to explain to me what each word meant.

The tears started to spill and thus began the painful trips to the bathroom while I tried to stop crying and then return to the classroom for more Spanish. During one bathroom epiphany I realized this could be a blessing in disguise. I could reclaim four hours of my week back and learn Spanish in another setting, in a situation that might suit me better.

But then the instructor asked the dreaded question, “Is something wrong?” Well, that did me in. Any tears that I had stuffed down came gushing out again. I explained through sobs that I was completely lost and how sorry I was to make everyone uncomfortable and like a pep rally crowd they replied with a resounding Noooo, but then the silence afterward would have made me laugh had I not been wiping my face because the room became awkward and quiet.

So I’d like to say to those who think what I’m doing is exciting and glamorous – living and working abroad – that traveling involves making an ass out of yourself because my ass was on big display yesterday and I know I’ll have it on display again. Possibly soon.

I won’t return to class. Not yet. But I’m not giving up. I obviously need to build up my vocabulary and work on my own until I catch up. I’m armed with Pimsleur Spanish and friends. News spreads fast and I was approached by another teacher who said, “I heard you might benefit from one on one tutoring. My girlfriend might be willing to help.” And “I have a great Spanish book I can let you borrow.” And also I was greeted with sympathetic texts and chats throughout the day.

I know, I know: what’s the big deal? It’s only Spanish class. I can’t tell you why. I’ve been feeling emotional and no, it’s not that time of the month. But I’ll tell you I take away great sympathy and empathy for students who are learning a new language and will remember this when I teach my own students. I also realized how much stress I’ve been under. Even though it is happy stress, it is still stress. I had just started to climb up the ladder of the Thai language and now I’m trying to start with Spanish; what the hell was I thinking?

And lastly I want to thank Ajarn Noi in Chiang Mai for starting at the beginning and with the basics. Kop khun ka. Rock, Lani.

p.s. The director told me today that she had heard what happened and encouraged me to return to class. That the class is designed for me (beginners) but I don’t know yet. Let me embrace today. . .

6 replies on “Over my head

  1. I'm sorry it was so overwhelming, Lani. If it's any comfort, I know I would have reacted the exact same way as you. It's crazy that that class was for “beginners”. Your fellow teachers sound cool though. 🙂


  2. Thanks ASK. The great thing to come out of it was all the help that different people offered. I feel very lucky!


  3. Oh Lani, I feel your pain! I hope you went back to the class though. The more you hear it, the more you'll get it. Maybe you can take two Spanish classes, this one and one that's taught in English?My French teacher at the Fort started class this way too, with a lot of French right out of the gate and I thought, “Oh shit, I'm in trouble,” but she was just getting us “oriented.” She wanted us to get used to hearing it and made us answer only in French! She turned out to be one of my favorite teachers.It's VERY stressful starting your life over (which, in essence, is what you're doing) in a new place when you don't speak the language. I would have thought what you did: Beginning Spanish means that no one in the class speaks Spanish yet! But don't stress it; you will get it. Everyone learns in their own way.


  4. Yeah I didn't expect the stress to hit me the way that it has. It's been happy stress for the most part but for the first few weeks it was such a big adjustment from Thailand.I ended up dropping the class but there is the option to take it again next term. Based on what I've heard from other teachers and my xp. I have decided to chose my own route.Once a week I have an intercambio or tutoring exchange with my new friend from Argentina and I've been working with Anki and Pimsleur too. I'm also renting a room in a safe and beautiful home with a family who is patient with my Spanish.Thanks for the encouragement, as always, hugs, lc


  5. That is how I have felt trying to learn Thai…crushed. After many tries I have all but given up. Other expats have lived in CM for year without learning Thai but that bothers me. I feel an obligation to learn the local language. This became such a burden for me, amoung other things, that I am back in the US now and looking at Cuenca next. Hablas espanol un poco so I am hoping for better results there.

    Thank you for sharing this. I can relate totally.


    1. Spanish is no doubt easier because of it’s closeness w/ English but conjugating all those verbs was daunting!

      I’ve actually come to peace w/ my up and down language learning style. It has helped me stop feeling frustrated at myself for not picking up things quicker and having good and bad days.


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