Shifting focus – “feeling” the language

OAXACA, Mexico

Can you “feel” the language when you speak Spanish? That is, do you have a sense of emotional confidence?  The kind of confidence to meet whatever circumstance you’re in?  Being self-aware of our emotional state is a useful aid in gaining fluency.  With confidence,  our focus shifts away from thinking about the words and grammar to focusing on the content of what we want to say.  This is something that seems to come with practice.

Everyone learns in their own way, but some fellow students have had common experiences on the road to fluency.   These are moments to treasure, like hitting a homer with the bases loaded.  Let me share several of my high points.

At the end of a food bank consultancy in Guadalajara, Luz, the chief volunteer and President’s wife, took me to a food distribution. After introducing me to the local leaders with generous praise, she turned and looked directly at me.

Suddenly, I realized she expected a response.  I had to say something more than “Gracias.” And I wasn’t prepared! Or so I thought. Swallowing momentary panic, I began, by thanking Luz for her kind words. And then I forgot about the words and concentrated on what I felt, what I wanted them to know. Miraculously, the words poured out without conscious effort, without hemming or hawing. I couldn’t quite believe what I’d just done: A spontaneous speech.  I felt both joy and pride.

Immersion experiences, formal and informal, can give us the base of experience to “feel” the language. By feeling, I mean an unspoken, intuitive trust that the necessary words will come to us when we need them. Think of Nik Wallenda, who walked the cable between Chicago sky-scrapers.  He succeeded because he wasn’t  preoccupied with falling.  Like him, we’re more likely to speak well if we aren’t preoccupied with making mistakes.

Test this:  Deliberately let yourself be drawn into a Spanish conversation that enters territory not covered by lessons, or involves somewhat complex topics. Asking someone about their profession is a good way to do this. Chances are you’ll enter a vocabulary thicket without a map. It’s a good way to practice trusting your intuition to serve up the words you need at the right time.  The words might be English cognates for Spanish ones, but you can modify many with ease.  And if you don’t know, you can always ask: “Como se dice,” or how does one say ….? One way or another, you can find a “work around” as you describe the idea, situation, or action for which you don’t have the exact word.  Even a work-around is a good exercise in conversation.

In the beginning, speaking Spanish in a complex conversation made me nervous.  It was like the first date with a girl I really liked.  I felt insecure, socially awkward, and wished I hadn’t asked the girl out.   The first date is always the hardest, but if you can survive the first date, and overcome the fear of rejection, or humiliation at your own hands, who knows? You may soon “go steady.”

Here are some signs to look for as you progress in building confidence on the road to fluency.


Our minds rarely rest.  I remember waking from a dream in the middle of the night during my first immersion.  In stunned disbelief, I realized I had been dreaming in Spanish!  It happens to a lot of students. If it happens to you, trust it. It doesn’t mean you’re fluent, but it’s a sign you mind is absorbing the langauge at a an unconscious level.

Oblivious to the language you speak.

During my third week of immersion, I patiently answered a Mexican student’s interview questions for her English class project.  After the third question, the student’s companion stopped me and said: “Ingles, habla en ingles!  Tu hablas en espanol.”  That is, speak English, I was answering in Spanish and didn’t know it.  Again, I was flabbergasted that Spanish was becoming an unconscious “default” language.  What was happening to me?  Now I know.   And it’s happened several times since, in both languages. It’s another sign.

Catching mistakes before and after you make them.

Another sign of progress is catching yourself making or about to make a mistake. Relax. We all do it. Our brain moves faster than our tongue, our mind edits as we speak, and sometimes we change our mind, leaving our tongue still trying to conjugate verbs we’ve rejected on second thought.  We all do it in English, too.  Don’t criticize yourself for small mistakes. Perfectionism is a crippling disease. As a good yardstick, listen to how you speak English and note how often you make mistakes, or edits, or “uhs” and “ers.” Our conversations aren’t oral exams with a final grade. As long others understand us, we pass. Not trying at all is the only failure.

More energy at day’s end.

As Spanish sinks deeper into the subconscious, you may feel more energetic than when you started Spanish.  When we stop thinking about the language, and start feeling it, it takes less and less energy.  Being at ease means focusing on what you want to say, not how you want to say it. It’s like shooting a moving target; you follow the clay pigeon with your eyes and your body automatically brings the gun into position.

Talking with your hands.

You may also notice that your body language changes as you gain proficiency. The changes may be subtle or obvious. You may find yourself talking with your hands as well as your voice where you never did that before; or use more emphatic gestures. I notice that in Mexico I use my hands more than I do when talking in the U.S.

Try this:

Pay attention to your emotional state when engaged in a conversation that is going well, perhaps going easily. Notice how you feel, how much conscious energy are you investing in it.  Is it flowing without apparent effort?

How you feel when you speak – confident, nervous, fearful – will influence how well you speak. Self-awareness is one key in gaining fluency.  Like the tightrope walker, success lies not in looking down but in looking ahead.

Be sure to let me know if this works for you!

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