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.

Immersion: Intensity, density, propensity


A few days ago I shared a cafe table with an American couple.  We’d come in out of the rain to eat an early breakfast.  Middle-aged, they live in Mexico City and teach in an American school.   We chatted in English because it was easier for them.  Although they have an apartment in Mexico City, and lived there a year and a half, they have only enough Spanish to get by meeting basic needs.  They said they hoped someday to learn more Spanish to better experience Mexico.

So, is getting by enough?  Will getting by give us the level of travel or living satisfaction we want?

I started learning Spanish with a goal of “getting by” to meet basic needs as a traveler.  That was before I ever spent time in Mexico.  But after I two weeks in Mexico, I realized “getting by” wasn’t enough.

Well, don’t we want it all, want it now, and want it to come easily?  And the next logical questions is: What’s the fastest way to embed Spanish?  It’s a good question.  I’ve asked it often.  But in hindsight, do we want to learn Spanish the fastest way or learn with the deepest penetration?

I believe the fastest way won’t embed it in a way we can call on it after an absence of use.  It will be rest in our short-term memory, and soon forgotten, like the items on last week’s grocery list.  And when we go to use quickie Spanish after a lapse, it won’t be there.  Language penetration is essential.

Immersion experiences work with three critical and related aspects: Intensity, density, and propensity.  The question you and I are asking is how to reach the point at which Spanish becomes almost if not entirely automatic; we don’t have to think about it to speak it.

As my mother (a French-speaker) used to say, “Anything worth doing, is worth doing well.”  So our first question must be this: Is learning Spanish worth doing?  If our answer is “Yes,” then it’s worth doing well.

Intensity:  Classroom lessons – particularly in an individual class or tutorial – can provide intense experiences.  It’s just us and the teacher.  There is time to form a sympathetic friendship that furthers mastery of the subjunctive, the conditional, and the other grammar forms essential to speaking the language correctly.  There is time to ask questions whenever we want, and ask why Spanish works the way it does; to grasp the cultural mentality of the tongue, and better understand how to use Spanish effectively.

At the same time, we can help our “profesora” work with the  learning methods that are most effective for us.  Writing stories worked well for me.  I wrote the kind of short stories I might tell at a party as a vehicle to practice thinking in Spanish, and putting the vocabulary and grammar into something of a realistic context.

If writing is useful for you, consider writing stories using the parts of grammar or vocabulary you find most difficult.  Writing is thinking on paper, and from our stories, the teacher can map the waay we think in Spanish.  My teacher pointed out I couldn’t just substitute Spanish words for English without also considering the differences in syntax or structure of thinking.  Ah!  La mentalidad!  Besides seeing the structure of our thoughts, our writing reveals  persist weak spots or recurrent errors that need attention.

Four hours of class a day, five days a week, for two weeks, is more class time than in a college semester.  And it’s better.  We aren’t sharing the teacher’s attention with 15 other students.  We can establish close, personal rapport that is at the heart of intensity.  And if we fall temporarily in love with our teacher, so much the better, because the teacher’s affirmation, not correction, is an act of love essential to effective learning.

An intense, one-on-one learning course may well compress a semester of college learning into a week.  This will accelerate our learning.  It’s an opportunity to harness our passion to learn, unleash our pent-up energy, and sharpen our focus so there’s nothing else in our life at the moment.  Intensity is a form of power; like sex, it’s vital energy.

Density refers to the number or frequency of encounters in our new language within a given time.  Think of the density of experiences as something nourishing, enduring in our memory as raw material for other experiences.  Many immersion programs send us into the city with a conversation guide to practice using the language we are learning in everyday circumstances.  We are learning to use the language with people who may not speak grammatically, articulate clearly, and use slang or jargon not found in classes.

These lessons happen in a less controlled environment than a classroom.  We may (and maybe should) encounter situations spontaneously, unscripted and unforeseen.  This is a potentially frightening thought.  But in these moments, we may learn the most about the language we are pursuing.  We may surprise ourselves – as I did above with the English interview – and take from it a sense of confidence we didn’t have before.  It is true we learn more from our failures than our successes.  Spontaneous conversations are where we test our mettle and gain confidence.

What are we made of?  What lessons will we learn from strangers?  What will they think of us?  We don’t want to look stupid so it’s tempting to say nothing, or pretend we don’t understand than risk putting our foot into it.  How can we overcome our fear of making mistakes in front of others?

The only way I know of overcoming my mistakes is by making mistakes and learning from them.   The density of immersion experiences will get us over our fears faster than any classroom.  Our out of class experience will make the difference between plants able to live only in a greenhouse (the classroom), and those that endure wind, rain, and light frost.

Propensity is a natural inclination or proclivity of our own.  It’s part of who we are, and immersion helps us acquire a language in a way that best fits our style of learning and manner of expression.  Think of it as having your suit tailed to fit and complement you.  It comes through interaction with others.

If we’re already inclined to learn Spanish at mid-life, what kind of investment of time (if not money) are we willing to make?  How much satisfaction do we want from travel, volunteering, or simply learning for its own sake?   If we can define what satisfaction looks like, I’m willing to bet we won’t settle for simply “getting by.”  Go ahead, make the investment of time, if not money, to do it right.

Don’t believe what everybody says.

Conventional wisdom says mature, middle-aged adults are too old to learn a second language. Such wisdom goes on to say only children and youths possess the mental flexibility to become fluent. I used to believe it until I tried it, and then discovered that conventional wisdom is wrong.

Experience taught me that, as mature adults, you and I have everything we need to learn and become fluent in another language. You can do it – “Sí se puede.” I started Spanish at the age of 64 and I’m now fluent. I want to share what I’ve learned, hear about your experiences and together wrestle with your questions.

Learning is as much emotional as mental; it’s falling in love, and who doesn’t want to do that? Love is married to desire. And don’t you secretly desire, or dream of speaking another language? Do you wonder if you’re able to learn it? Or do you think it’s too late for that? If you heart wants to learn, listen to it and ignore what your head says about conventional wisdom. Follow your heart. As they say in Mexico, “Querer es poder,” or “To want is to be able to;” it’s a way of saying, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

If you want to learn a language, and believe you can, this column is for you. Let’s take the journey together .