Bilingual Blues

A few days ago, I was thrilled at how things were progressing here.  I had scored a few helpful interviews, found a few restaurants with decent vegetarian food, and—most importantly—progressed in my Spanish enough to be able to make my self understood, albeit in a broken and grammatically incorrect fashion.

Half a week later, not much has changed, and I guess that is the problem.  I don’t quite know what, exactly, I expected the learning curve for a foreign language to be, but it’s a bit dispiriting to be making the same errors, and to continue to have to strain and struggle to understand even the most basic questions and comments.  Listening to myself on interview recordings is truly painful: every single mispronounciation, failed conjugation, and mismatched article is digitally commemorated, and acts as a glaring reminder of the fact that I don’t really know what I am doing here.  What is more, I feel like the snowball of contacts and interviews I put into motion last week has stopped rolling—and I can’t help but think it’s thanks to some horrible grammatical error, cut and pasted into a dozen different e-mails.

Research is, of course, supposed to be difficult.  But it’s supposed to be difficult because of other people.  We’re supposed to be held back by incompetent bureaucrats and cultural idiosyncracies and stomach infections—not our own lack of know-how.  Perhaps the most dispiriting realization I’ve had is that my best case scenario for my time here is to achieve what nearly all of my classmates started with—a basic level of comprehension and fluency.  I had, for a short moment, a vision of returning to Oxford head held high, feeling like I had distinguished myself for something other than being loud and unhinged.  At this moment, though, it’s hard to see that happening, given that I lack the most important baseline of research: the ability to understand and be understood.  It’s almost humilitating to tell people here that I’m here doing research, because I can see their skepticism in their faces: “What do you think you can learn if you can’t even hold a conversation?”

And so goes the rollercoaster.  I have enough self-knowledge at this point in my life to know that these moments of despondency inevitably pass; I just have to hope, though, that it passes sometime before the plane ride home, because I have a lot of work to do, bilingual or not.

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