Learning Spanish as a tongue-tied imposter

Nearly every language learner I’ve met – whether an English-speaker learning Spanish, or a Spanish-speaker learning English – feels the same anxiety. Have you had that experience – the reluctance if not fear of using our second language in front of people who are bilingual? At its best , our hesitation may be a decent form of modesty to prevent a presumption of appearing to be more than we are. Or so we tell ourselves. Or, it may be our fear is more primal than that.

The ‘imposter syndrome’, as it’s called, hits me most noticeably when I encounter Spanish speakers whose English is at least as good as my Spanish. My first instinct is to stick with English. Yet, I’m not afraid to speak Spanish with Mexicans who don’t speak English. It’s utterly irrational but somewhere, in the back of my mind, a little voice tells me bilingual Spanish speakers will ask themselves: ‘Who does this naco (idiot) think he is?’

When I was a schoolboy, I sometimes had nightmares of standing naked in front of my classmates while they pointed, giggled and taunted as I imploded before them. Over the years, as I matured and gained self-confidence, the dreams went away – or so I thought.

Why not? I passed into adulthood and then middle age as a highly competent if not accomplished adult. I overcame a lackluster high school education to earn a PhD, write a book and receive a book award, then hold a professional slot in a multinational corporation followed by a stint in state government. In short, when I put my mind and will into it, I did everything I thought possible to do and even things I thought no possible to do. Experience showed me that my professional effectiveness rested on my integrity because people knew me to be who I claimed to be.

When I took up Spanish in my 60s, and stepped outside my customary social and professional world, the fear of standing naked on a stage returned, and I again feared exposure as a fraud. I know the ‘imposter syndrome’ is a common occurrence to various degrees but it’s not one we talk about. We cover it up behind a bluff front, or we dismiss these dire visions as irrational fantasies outside reality. As a middle-aged language student, the fear of exposure often dogged me by day as well as by night.

Learning Spanish in Mexico wasn’t simply a matter of memorizing grammar and vocabulary, as I thought. No. Language immersion entailed learning and living within a cultural mentality that was different from my own. The anxiety didn’t arise when I began the language because I knew so little. Anxiety increased as I learned to move into the culture and became acute toward the end of immersion, as I became bilingual. Mexico isn’t Minnesota and our inner ways of life differ. Unfiltered expressions of opinion and emotion are marks of authenticity in Mexico but we Minnesotans mask these things with opaque friendliness. As I internalized this aspect of the Mexican cultural mentality, I started to think, speak and act in Mexico in ways at odds with how I thought, spoke and acted in Minnesota. Before long, I felt as if I had two personalities and wondered which was the authentic one.

Near the end of my language study, I was riding high, full of myself, floating on the affirmations of teachers and friends who said how much I had changed during immersions. To them, I had become ‘something of a Mexican’ in thought and habit as well as speech. When I took a bus to visit a friend in a distant town, I shared the four-hour journey with a campesino. When he discovered I grew up on a farm, we talked about agriculture in great detail, questioning each each other about the practices in Mexico and Minnesota. If I can do that, I thought afterward, then I must be truly ‘something of a Mexican’.

After a day of walking around in the tropical heat, and feeling ill, I passed a wretched night with my inner critic, trapped between slumber and consciousness. Like a prosecuting attorney, this dark voice reviewed every error I ever made during Spanish immersion, it doubted my affinity for Mexican culture, and questioned the authenticity of my identity as ‘something of a Mexican’. Who was I to think I could be bilingual and culturally competent? I was a fraud, a pretender, un pendejo (a jerk).

I rose early in the morning, physically and mentally exhausted, convinced I didn’t speak much Spanish, that the affirmations of my fluency were lies, and my affinity for Mexico was illusory. At that moment, I wanted to return to Minnesota immediately. Feeling hungry, I went to the posada’s deserted dining room for breakfast. The waiter greeted me cheerfully and asked for my order. I answered automatically in fluent Spanish, adding the details of how I wanted my eggs cooked, and could he bring me coffee right now. Hearing me speak in rapid-fire Spanish, he asked more questions, we chatted for a moment and then he took my order to the kitchen. As he walked away, I wondered: What happened last night?

That is the crux of the ‘imposter syndrome’. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. At its core, the ‘imposter syndrome’ identifies our insecurities and poses questions that test if not challenge what we believe about ourselves. Sometimes it’s a gentle nudge toward self-examination and self-definition. At other times, as in my case, it acts like the Spanish Inquisition or the Salem witch trials demanding proof that its negative accusations aren’t false. Looking back on it, I realize my subconscious was warning me not to confuse my high aspirations and expectations with my current reality. Yes, I’m bilingual, and yes, I’m culturally competent, but that night the syndrome taught me the importance of humble self-acceptance as the heart of authenticity.

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!