I Am the Worst Spanish Speaker in South America

I’ve been in South America for six months and I still cannot speak Spanish. How is this even possible? One of my main reasons for visiting this continent was to learn the language to a good level, but I’m not even close. And, in true Sophie-style, I am FULL of excuses as to why it’s not my fault:

  • I’ve been backpacking so it’s been hard to find the time.
  • I’m working while I travel so that has to take priority.
  • I’ve been surrounded by English speaking people so I haven’t really needed to learn.
  • I’m English and we aren’t good language learners.
  • It’s harder to learn a language when you’re older.

All of this, of course, is complete crap. The real reason for my incompetence is that I really hate learning Spanish. It’s frustrating, hard and a little bit boring. I’m also prone to feeling very embarrassed about my language skills whenever I’m around Spanish speakers (which, in Colombia, is all the bloody time), so I shy away from speaking. I dislike it so much that even when I semi-commit to learning via a new app/podcast/dictionary, I constantly avoid it in favour of watching Netflix, napping, and pretty much anything else I can think of to dodge Spanish hell for just one more day.

Obviously I’ve picked up some of the basics: I’m fairly good in restaurants, and you should see me shine in a bus station. I’m also practically fluent when I’m drunk in a taxi on my way home from a night out; ask any Colombian cab driver and they’ll tell you that I can talk solidly for 20 minutes on any subject without pausing for breath.

I haven’t always been so anti-Spanish though, and when I first arrived in South America last year I was full of excitement at the prospect of becoming the best person at the language. I took a week of lessons to make this happen (hence my restaurant/bus station skills), and rambled excitedly in this blog post about how eager I was to learn the local lingo. But, after my lessons were finished I put a complete stop to my quest for language and fell straight back into my default of telling people “yo no hablo Español”.

To avoid any language shame, I have been using a few cunning tricks on my travels. So far on this trip, I’ve exclusively stuck to the ‘gringo trail’ to ensure that I mainly encountered other English speakers, and when I’ve met local people for friendship/dates/whatever, I’ve always targeted those with a good knowledge of my mother tongue. It’s my tried and tested survival method and I’ve been sticking to it. Until now.

Having settled in Medellín, it’s quickly becoming clear that my Spanglish simply won’t cut it. Everybody here seems to speak brilliant Spanish, no matter where they’re from. My housemates, friends and work contacts are all fluent, which leaves me with a blank look on my face every time I attempt to engage in a group conversation. I went out at the weekend with a group of friends comprising of Colombians, Americans, French and English, and everyone at our table spoke perfect Español apart from little old me. I had no idea what anyone was saying, so I faked it by laughing when everyone else did, or by picking out a word that I recognised in a sentence and making up what I thought they were talking about. Fun.

But, do I try and do anything about what is currently my biggest annoyance in life? No, I do not. Instead of putting in more effort to learn, I just tell little white lies to hide my incompetency. When people ask me how long I’ve been here for, I pretend that I think they mean Medellín and tell them, “oh, just one month”. It’s a lot less embarrassing than telling them the truth, which is that I’ve been here for over half a year and know about 30 Spanish words.

Ah well, as long as I can order cerveza and papas fritas (which I definitely can), what more do I really need?

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