My varied experiences with the Spanish language have taught me that there is one thing bilinguals will always have a surplus of: questions. Fluency is a relative concept; everyone has a different definition of what it means to be fluent in a language, and my most pressing question seems to be Am I really fluent?
At my son’s age (3), the questions are more basic, like Why do we say “his” and “her” en inglés, but only “su” en español? Isaías doesn’t literally formulate such questions yet, but he essentially asks them every time he gets his pronouns mixed up or encounters a false cognate. Although I know the answers and most of the rules, I relish this kind of confusion because I experience it as often as my son does.
My own questions are a little more complex, and because there aren’t always straightforward answers, I run in circles trying to settle on a conclusion that will satisfy me in my everyday Spanish use. Here are some recent preguntas that still have me stumped:
- Is there ever a clear distinction between the use of Ud. and tú? The extent of what they teach in school is the formal/informal difference, but I find that this line is often blurred. In the course of one conversation, a native speaker (often a South American) may use both with me, although the context of our relationship hasn’t changed. Is this sometimes just a mistake, or does it sound normal to native speakers to interchange these subjects when speaking to one individual?
- Am I a fluent speaker if there are quite a few vocabulary words that I only know in Spanglish, but not in Spanish? By this, I mean Anglicized words that many Spanglish-speakers with whom I interact only ever use in that form: “el toilet,” “la van,” “la yarda,” “parquear.” While I agree with those who claim that the heavy use of Spanglish in America is an important linguistic phenomenon, I always have an interest in keeping a full word bank of “real” Spanish.
- Is a literally translated idiom always lost in translation? Things like “against the grain” in English – “a contrapelo” in Spanish – have the same feel but different literal meanings. I hate the moments when I have the perfect phrase for a situation, but it is an English-specific idiom that would mean nothing in Spanish (because Spanish makes much more sense, oftentimes).
- What do I sound like to Spanish speakers? Though most tell me that I barely have an accent when I speak Spanish, I can hear that my comfort with pronunciation is not as perfect as my son’s. As an auditory learner, this annoys me and makes me walk around all day repeating words and singing fast songs like “Estaba la rana cantando debajo del agua…” so that I can fake out more people.
Ultimately, preguntas keep us on our toes. I may have more than a native speaker does, and I’m certain that I’m overanalyzing all of them, but I’m okay with that. Having questions means I will always have something to work towards: a higher level of comprehension, a greater mastery of intricacies, and an ease with the most subtle parts of the language.