Last night I went out with my friends Dan and Valerie, meeting up with a couple of Dan's students and their friends. Though the final destination was to be a house party in a residential neighborhood far away (I eventually hitch-hiked home at 5:30 am), we first went to the students apartment to drink Fernet and cola, helping the students practice their English among other things. This is one of the things I love most about living abroad. It was a mix of cultures, and we dropped some slang for them to soak up, laughing as we learned about their culture, explained in English.
Eventually more people showed up, and it was like a small party on its own. A girl from Minnesota who has an Argentinian boyfriend arrived, and we were told that she has learned Spanish entirely from being with her boyfriend and his friends. She insists on only speaking Spanish and has learned a lot, so they told me. I was sitting in the middle of the couch, in the middle of the room. To my right Dan was speaking in English with his students, talking about movies, music, and sports. To my left, the girl from Minnesota insisted on speaking Spanish, and the conversation surrounded other things a beginner will talk about, along with the friends that spoke to her.
I found myself stuck in the middle of both worlds, and it oddly seemed familiar to my life in general. There was second language English on one side and second language Spanish on the other. I sipped my Fernet and cola and heard a mix of broken languages, everyone trying to figure out how to say what everyone else was trying to understand. "And now everybody's at disadvantage, speaking with their second language."
This Minnesotan was almost obnoxiously insisting on Spanish, to the effect that maybe it took away from a goal of Dan's, which was to get his students to practice more. If I'm in the United States and want to keep fresh with my Spanish, I'll speak in Spanish with someone who can. But living in Argentina, working at an Argentinian firm, I find more than ample opportunity to practice. I love speaking Spanish with native speakers, but speaking to a beginner who is from my own country is a draw back. I speak down, and it makes me become a teacher of sorts. I would rather converse in English so we actually understand each other. Yet if we have a group of people together, I find no problem in sharing in the second language, because we're all participating.
I have come to appreciate the opportunities to speak in my mother tongue, and find joy in helping others who strive to learn it. It's not that it's selfish to insist on Spanish, but it can be dominating and not truly mix the experience for everyone.
You need to know when you're taking away from the cultural exchange. The keyword is "exchange." If someone wants to speak English, give them the chance. It's not always about you wanting to speak in Spanish. And if you really spend enough time with it, you too find it tiring to always speak in the second language.
Still, with the negative impression of it aside, it truly spoke to my life. I find myself in a halfway place, each day further from my America, though not quite in my Argentina. I use more hand gestures now, and my lunfardo, or Buenos Aires slang, is slowly overtaking my dialect. But this change is not a quick one, and like a tree I will continue to slowly grow down here, while the languages run rings around me. So maybe just for a moment I'll keep my mouth shut, sip my Fernet and cola, and let someone else do the talking.