“Oh, you’re going to Spain for a semester?” people said. “That’s so cool! You’re totally going to be fluent!”
“I don’t know about that,” you said. “I’m really bad at Spanish.”
They waved it off. “Oh, don’t be silly,” they said, apparently assuming for some reason that you are just very modest and not, in fact, inherently terrible at the language. “It’ll be different when you’re immersed.”
Well, it turns out that for all the wonders of immersion, it cannot immediately fix the fact that somehow, after taking Spanish classes for the majority of your life, you still don’t understand things like the future tense or how object pronouns work.
This will make some of your interactions in the country very difficult. For instance, you might want to register for a gym membership. After all, what’s the point of study abroad if you don’t come back tan and fit? So you very carefully look up the words you need —“register,” “membership,” even “gym,” although you’re pretty positive you know that one — and trot over to the school bank to get your account.
Behind the desk, the man says, “Hola.”
“Hola,” you say. So far, so good. And then you tell him you want to register for a membership at the gym.
He looks at you blankly. Then he says, “Qué?”
You break out in a cold sweat. It’s the dreaded q-word. That’s the sign that you just accidentally spouted gibberish, and you get one more try to communicate before your conversational partner gives up on you. Unfortunately for you, you’ve already used up every single word you know on the topic. “El gimnasio?” you try again, weakly.
He told you something important, you’re almost certain of it. You’re just not quite sure what.
The man’s blank look resolves into one of exasperation. He knows for certain at this point — if he couldn’t already tell from the sunburn and the over-eager smile — that you are American. “You need account,” he says, in English.
The two of you get through the rest of the conversation in garbled Spanglish. You end up leaving without a gym membership and without much comprehension of what you and the poor bank teller just talked about. He told you something important, you’re almost certain of it. You’re just not quite sure what.
So you’ve humiliated yourself, and can never show your face in that bank ever again. So what? Look on the bright side: you know, for sure, know the word for gym! You’ve finally achieved the vocabulary level of your average Spanish six-year-old.
One morning you will wake up perfectly fluent in Spanish, able to communicate your every whim and desire.
All these times you’ve confused bank tellers and shop owners and bartenders will probably pay off at some point. You’ll keep studying and making flashcards and subtly opening the WordReference app under the table at a restaurant. Deep down, you will remain convinced that everyone back home was right, and one morning you will wake up perfectly fluent in Spanish, able to communicate your every whim and desire.
And on that day, you will return to the bank — possibly in some sort of disguise, like sunglasses or maybe a big floppy hat — and you will get your gym membership. Sweet victory will be yours, señorita.