That Rough Patch Before Fluency

Have you ever learned a second language?

With my first one, Spanish, I was so insecure about my ability to communicate in it, I mostly stayed silent and tried to learn by listening. I only spoke when asked a direct question, and it was nerve-wracking to come up with a decent response.

Then, after four months living in Chile, forced to speak Spanish to live, I got fluent. That level of ability where you know you can actually get by. You’re not pausing for 10 seconds composing a sentence in your head before you speak. Things are actually leaving your brain. They might not be eloquent, but at least you’re not stuck. Talking is somewhat bearable. It flows like mayo. Gloopy, slow, sometimes in bursts or squirts, but it flows.

Then, three months in Spain with intensive grammar lessons, and I was actually fluent fluent. As in, I could have a conversation about anything, no matter how abstract. I wasn’t a poet, but I could do much more than just get by. I could write academic papers, and they were good — logical, cohesive, coherent.

Now, learning ASL as my third language, I’m in that intermediate stage again before true fluency. But this time, it’s very different. When Deaf people talk with each other, sure, I’m still only getting maybe 30% of what they’re saying. When they slow down for me, la pobrecita hearing lady, I understand between 50-80%, depending on the topic. But yet…that fear isn’t there. I’m willing to look like an idiot for the sake of learning.

Again, I’m not a poet. My vocab is sorely lacking, even with my ASL apps and video dictionaries. I have a ways to go before I can understand even 75% of most daily conversations. Watching vlogs by Deaf people is still like watching movies on mute. Body language, short phrases, the gist of the scene, okay, I can get those. But I’m missing so many details. And yet…I can make myself understood pretty well.

Letting go of the fear, signing freely, using my emotions (but not my voice!), finger spelling what I can’t define… It’s working. I have so far to go, still, but I can at least be engaged in conversations.

The Deaf people I’ve met have been so gracious. They take time out to explain to me what’s going on. They fingerspell slowly. They ask me questions about my life and truly take an interest.

I have an in-joke with my favorite Deaf friend, Tom. He always asks if my boyfriend cooks dinner for me, making sure he isn’t acting like a chauvinist. It’s hilarious, because of course my boyfriend is the best partner I’ve ever had. We share everything, especially chores. Made that priority #1 to work out when we moved in together. Get the responsibilities down, and then we can relax and enjoy each other’s company with the ease of lifelong soulmates. But I digress.

I have a great deal to learn still, but I think having that prior experience learning a second language…it helps a lot. I have that bilingual brain to give me a head start. It doesn’t matter that Spanish and ASL are so different. (In fact, it helps me avoid getting them confused.) What matters is that I know I can learn a new language. I’m ready to do whatever it takes.

3 Comments

  1. Hi there. Found your blog on the WordPress reader by searching American Sign Language. I just started my first class, and I’m really interesting to read about how your experiment progresses and to go back and read your older posts.
    Too bad about the bellydance experience. (I bellydance too.)

      • [[cackle!!]]

        Yeah, I’m taking ASL at a local community college, but I’m kind of an older student—45 years old, just laid off from work, and going nuts with classes and fun things during this break, and blogging about it. (I’m taking Blogging 101 at WordPress, which is what lead me to your blog.)
        The ASL class just blows my mind; it’s so much fun, and SO cool. Nice to see you’ve posted again! Will go read…

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