Sí, Oui, Ja: Where am I?

I recently spent a week in Spain, and I loved jumping back into my second language, Spanish. Given that I’ve studied it for much longer, I am more proficient in it than in German, so it was nice to be able to express myself in public more than I do in my daily life in Heidelberg.

It took me 4 days to lose my now involuntary German words, like “ja” for “yes” and “bitte” for “please.” Chris and I have had problems traveling to non-German speaking countries and letting a “bitte” slip out. Some locals are so used to German tourists though, that upon hearing our slip, they start speaking to us in German!

After my four-day transition time, I was gradually gaining my confidence back in Spanish. I put together complex sentences to ask at the hotel reception desk and walked away so pleased when I had a full conversation entirely in Spanish. I was also excited when I was able to explain a difficult problem with our check one night. (I know I couldn’t have done this in German.)

Sí, estoy en San Sebastián.

I did come across some problems in the very touristy parts of Barcelona. I was looking for a very particular gift, and I started asking the retail workers if they carried it. In the third store I tried, the guy asked me to repeat myself, then very sharply said, “SPEAK ENGLISH.” I was a little deflated and quite offended, because I was really trying with the Spanish and was confident I was saying everything right. When I started walking out of the store, though, I realized that the workers weren’t even speaking Spanish or English to each other. They had a different native language which explains why their Spanish might not have even been that strong, since they encounter so many English-speaking tourists.

My head was full of Spanish, when I had to return to Germany. I ordered a pretzel at the German airport, and upon getting asked if that’s all I wanted, I said, “Sí, I mean, Oui,” (there was no reason that I was speaking French), and then finally pulled out an exasperated “Ja.”

After getting home, I spent 2 hours doing German homework before I had to go to my class. I had missed a week which is always hard, but this time, I had spent the week purposefully removing German from my brain. I don’t think my teacher was pleased.

I ended up telling her “Mein Kopf ist in Spanien,” (My head is in Spain) because I don’t know how to say anything more elaborate than that, and I could tell she thought I was struggling.

My abilities to be able to communicate in a foreign language sharply dropped in a matter of hours.

The next day I went to my local grocery store and a woman came up to me. Usually when I’m approached by strangers, I get ready to ask if they speak English, because even if I understand what they say, I most likely can’t answer back. I prepared myself, but then she said, “Hablas español?” (Do you speak Spanish?) In my head, I thought, wow, I actually do! I told her “Sí!” She asked if I knew where condensed milk was, and after a couple of minutes of Spanish conversation, we both realized we had no idea where the Germans would keep condensed milk. (Apparently, my Brazilian friends tell me that you have to buy it at the Asian market.)

My nearby Asian market. I hid behind a tree to take this picture.

This stranger caught me on a good day. I was fresh off my Spanish immersion and excited to speak Spanish. Maybe I’ll run into her again, and we can look for other baking items together. Or, maybe I will just need to return to Spain more often.

Though, I’m not sure what my German teacher would say about that.

German isn’t the easiest language to learn, but I’m slowly improving. Read about some of my past struggles and occasional victories:


5 responses to “Sí, Oui, Ja: Where am I?

  1. Today I went alone to the VHS to ask Frau Bruns when my language class was to begin. I was able to ask my question, get the answer and have a little chat about our apt. location and how we like it. I was astounded by my ability to get through that one. KONDENS MILCH is with the sugar, coffee. The Germans use it for coffee.

  2. I completely understand this experience! I go back and forth between German (at my language school) and Spanish (with my translation work) on a regular basis, and it can be so hard to switch between those modes. For a while there was a group of Spanish speakers in my German class, and switching back and forth while chatting with them and others was *incredibly* challenging. Lots of language-mixing. 🙂

    • I’m impressed: I don’t know how you do it regularly!
      My German class is over 1/2 Spanish speakers, too! It’s confusing, but I like it. When we go out after class, it’s fun to hear all 3 languages being thrown around the table.

  3. I can so relate to this! When traveling to Spain a year or so ago, I kept throwing Chinese words into my Spanish (“yi dian dian” rather than “un poco,” for example). My husband thought it was hilarious and everyone else just thought I was a little daft.

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