the game of language

on learning not to know

My worst fear in Spain starts with someone walking up to me on the street. It doesn’t have to be at night, or on an empty street, or anything like that. I can be walking to class on the brightest, most spectacular Granada morning, but if I see someone coming towards me, I brace myself for a surge of my least favorite sensation.


(Trying to avoid eye contact)



(Releases rapid string of heavily-accented Spanish, omitting any and all sibilants, swallowing syllables, and finally screeching to a halt with a question or phrase that could be about absolutely anything, since context is a pipe dream at this point)


(Eyes wide, completely lost, never to return)

No sé, ¡lo siento!

(Sprints away)


(Thinking, noting my retreating form)

Ahh, should have guessed he was American by those non-fitted pants.

In retrospect, the decision to study abroad in Spain after not having touched el español since high school may have been a little rash. Certainly the first few days in Granada, the hilly southern city known for the Alhambra and other remnants of a rich Moorish history, gave me a taste of what is charitably known as culture shock. For me, whose only knowledge of the language was buried under five semesters of American Studies, it was culture oblivion.

Spain is remarkable in that it packs just as much regional diversity as we have in the United States into an area less than the size of Texas. The north—rainy, verdant, and cool—is geographically practically a different country from the mountainous south: dry, shade-your-eyes bright, almost tropical in the summer. Most Spaniards identify with their comunidad autónoma (CA), i.e. their province, more strongly than with Spain as a whole, which makes the term Spaniard itself less useful than you’d think. With the local pride comes a wide array of sociocultural differences: food, celebrations, clothing, language, and more.

This is important to the tragicomic one-act above because regional accents are par for the course. Though you can drive the length of the country in a day, the Spanish you’ll hear that morning in the northern CA of Asturias sounds nothing like the Spanish that would greet you in the evening in Andalucia, the CA that spans the entire southern coast of the country. This is not to mention the three regional languages spoken in various CAs in the north (the Portuguese-like gallego, the French-like catalán, and the literally nothing-like euskera), but even the generic brand Spanish at hand (el castellano) gets morphed and twisted to the point of unrecognizability in the mouths of its speakers.

Andalucia happens to be the CA where I’ve been living since January, in Granada, its “heart.” The city’s gorgeous—the streets and sidewalks are paved with the shiniest stones, and it only ever rains for long enough to rinse them of whatever debris (wild orange peels, wax from the candles of Easter processions) may have accumulated since the last spritzing a couple weeks ago. The route I take to class, the one that fills me with such misplaced fear, leads me through communist graffiti–lined alleyways and up a foothill of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, so that I can just make out their snowy peaks over the tops of the sycamore trees in the distance.

All of this beauty is, of course, forgotten the instant the interaction with a local begins. The shreds of memory from my AP Spanish class (“subjunctive uses the opposite ending”; “estar is for states of being, ser is for characteristics”) are no match for the combination of the pace of the words and the nearly incomprehensible Andalucian accent. It’s as if they’re speaking while trying to extract the pits from a mouthful of olives—which, admittedly, might be true at any given moment. “Gracias” becomes “grathia” in el andaluz. “Más o menos” becomes “maomeno.” And my name, Spencer, already unheard of in Spanish for the s-beginning digraph at its start, becomes “Espenthe.” I’d feel bad for my host mother if she hadn’t already taken the initiative of dropping the names and simply referring to me and my roommate Blake as “los chicos.”

But my scene partner on the street doesn’t know I’m not Spanish or that I can only follow a conversation if I have a sense of the topic to begin with, or that I have to rehearse even the most basic stuff in my head before uttering anything. I can’t stand feeling lost or dumb, but it’s unavoidable here. I promise I’m a real human in English! I want to yell over my shoulder. Then I remember I’d probably mess up the indirect object pronouns, and decide to keep my mouth shut.

This feeling of dysfunction, of inoperability, is something to which I’ve been trying to grow accustomed. As much as I can’t stand to say I don’t understand something, or to ask someone to repeat something more slowly, sometimes those maneuvers need to be embraced. I haven’t quite accepted that it’s better to collaborate to reach understanding than to smile blankly and nod and feign clarity and wait for the end of the interaction, but I’m getting there. Conversations with Spaniards aren’t confrontations, I try to remind myself. We’re all on the same side. Make mistakes. Get messy.

Though my friends are basically all American here, I’ve met a few local students with whom I go out for tapas occasionally (appetizers that are served free with any drink—I’m getting nostalgic already). I always make sure to bring another person from my program so it’s not just up to me to carry the conversation, and it’s always easier when the topic is of mutual interest to everyone (“¡Qué casualidad!” I exclaimed when José turned out to be a fellow Gryffindor after taking the Pottermore quiz), but by the second hour of straight Spanish, it simply becomes the new normal. Not understanding everything becomes painless, acceptable, even admirable. I can’t say half the things I’d like to say, and I’m still unconvinced any of my personality comes through, but hangouts like these make me hopeful that I’m on my way to being a functional person in Spain.

The secret? It’s all a game. Play by the rules of the language, and get rewarded with a smile of comprehension and a response from your teammate. Begin the cycle again. Repeat for however long you’d like. Remember that everything is casual, low-stakes. And keep in mind the hidden truth of this game of language: no hay ningún perdedor. There are no losers.