As a devout gym rat, I am closely acquainted with the process of building and losing muscles, tweaking strength, hitting plateaus. For me, Spanish is like a muscle. If I use it at a time of day when I’m energized and have adequate fuel, or when I have the motivation of fellow exercisers, I can speak at a good pace and never get tired or tripped up. If I am forced to use that muscle unexpectedly, though, or am simply not in the mood, I cannot seem to push through the simplest of conversations and can become immobilized by fatigue.
I have mentioned in previous posts how speaking a second language is often more difficult when one thinks about it too much. When I find myself translating, analyzing my grammar before I use a phrase, or searching for the perfect description, my Spanish never comes out with the fluidity and logic for which I strive. Like in many other parts of life, trying too hard yields less than ideal results.
From a nonnative speaker’s perspective, I used to wonder if native speakers had this same struggle: confidence that comes in waves, days on which you can’t manage to say what you mean. Then I realized that I also follow this random pattern in English, and it’s probably true for everyone. Like circadian rhythms, our levels of eloquence vary daily. The effects are simply a little more pronounced in a second language.
Here are my favorite ways to get out of the troughs and move on to the peaks in my Spanish language use:
1) Take a break. I allow myself some breathing room if I don’t feel like speaking, reading, writing, and listening to Spanish. I call an English-speaking friend for a long chat or read a book to my son in English for a change.
2) Stick to writing/typing. Since I learned Spanish in school (becoming literate before fluent), I feel more comfortable expressing my thoughts in writing. Texting, emailing, or chatting online in Spanish can sometimes reassure me that I still know the language, even if I’m not conversationally excited about it.
3) Find a different way to enjoy Spanish. I will search for a podcast, listen to the news or talk radio, or read a book to expand my vocabulary and exposure to various accents.
4) Talk about my frustration. When the pressure to speak perfectly overwhelms me, I simply explain my feelings to my Spanish-speaking friends, and they quickly ease my fears or laugh about it with me. It’s like acknowledging the proverbial elephant in the room: talking about it makes it go away.
Many of you cannot relate to this need to recover from a dip in Spanish speaking abilities; perhaps you play the role of supportive friend instead. Whichever vantage point you have, remembering that fluctuation is normal and necessary can improve your relationship with any idioma.