Instead I experienced months of frustration, of constantly feeling like my Spanish should be better by now. I felt like I had only made marginal progress while my other gringa friends navigated the Spanish world with ease. I was constantly comparing myself to my friends who had more experience with the language than I did, leaving myself feeling inadequate. But until this week I didn’t realize the problem that comparison was causing.
This week a group of University students visited the Colegio Nazareth Olaya as part of a month long immersion course. They spent two days with families from the church. In the mornings they attended their own classes, given entirely in Spanish, and spent the afternoons meeting the classes in the colegio. The day before they arrived my supervisor told me I was invited to participate in their classes. Upon meeting them I was immediately bombarded with questions about my job, the YAV program, how long I had been here, how I felt about Colombia, and of course, how fluent I was in Spanish after living here nine months.
Much to my surprise, over the next two days I found myself being asked to translate. When even one of the more advanced students asked me for help all I could think was, why are you asking me? It didn’t seem logical that anyone would rely on me to translate. Don’t they know there are other gringas around here who speak much better Spanish than me?
The second day of their stay, while the students went off to meet the elementary school classes, I ended up in a conversation with one of their professors. We spoke for some time about cultural and political similarities between Colombia and his native Guatemala. And in the middle of the conversation it dawned on me how easy it felt to converse in my second language. It was then that I realized my problem. Spending months comparing myself to people with more Spanish experience than myself, I had been unable to see the progress I was making.
Of course I feel slightly guilty that it took being around people with less Spanish experience than me to realize this. But finding confidence in my own abilities wasn’t about being able to compare myself to people who are better or worse than me. It was about realizing that it doesn’t matter how I compare to others. It only matters how I compare to myself when I stepped off that plane nine months ago. And while I still have a long way to go in learning Spanish, I’d say that Colombia has given me a pretty decent start.