Like most writers, I’m a bit of a writing perfectionist. I am obsessed with the sentences, mixing them up until everything reads correctly. I’m not sure how or why I got to be so meticulous – I’m not like that in any other area of my life – but organizing words on paper has always given me a tremendous sense of satisfaction and control. I feel like I can express myself exactly as I want, without reservation.
Due to the increased importance of writing in my life, speaking has never had the same weight. I rarely need to chat with a large group of friends, and I always keep a journal to jot down my thoughts. Make no mistake: I am a social person who can communicate effectively and confidently. But my spoken voice is less assertive than my written voice, and I often feel shaky and mute whenever I’m put on the spot – say, when I’m in a new place and need to ask for directions, or if I am traveling with a large group and wish to express my desire to spend time alone.
I never recognized this as a problem until I traveled to Mexico City with my boyfriend Philippe who speaks Spanish. For months I had studied Spanish through Duolingo and the Pimsleur Method and was delighted to put what I learned into practice. But when we got out into the streets and started interacting with the locals, I fumbled with my words and guessed everything I knew.
In a café in La Condesa, I froze on my way to the counter to order: “Podria have a coffee there… ”I started, then I stopped. I had forgotten the word for a “glass” of water. I turned to Philippe for help. “You know that,” he said softly, and I made. Yet for such a low-stakes interaction, my level of embarrassment was at its peak. So I urged him to finish ordering.
One version of this incident happened so many times during our trip that at one point I asked Philippe to take the initiative to converse. It was nice to be relieved of the pressure of speaking, but it frustrated me to be so dependent on his translation services. I felt speechless.
Once home I intensified my Spanish learning with Duolingo podcasts and YouTube videos, but my self-confidence continued to be easily damaged by the most minor mistakes, like forgetting a word of basic vocabulary or not matching the gender of a name whenever I have had the opportunity to do so. practice with a native speaker. As a last push, I signed up for private lessons through the Preply virtual language platform and scheduled a session with a tutor named Julieta who lives in Rosario, Argentina.
Her warm, down-to-earth attitude made me feel at ease. “Excellent, “ she exclaimed throughout the lesson. She insisted that I speak exclusively in Spanish, so I had to settle for my very limited vocabulary and force myself to continue, even when I made a mistake.