Spain / Spanish / Spanish language

Learning Spanish: Getting Over Feeling Embarrassed

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Source: GlobalCool

One of my biggest struggles in perfecting my Spanish is overcoming feelings of embarrassment and shyness when practicing the language. I thought that would go away once I became proficient at the language but that’s definitely NOT the case, sadly.

Let me preface this by saying I do speak good Spanish. I work as a translator for a website in an all-Spanish speaking office, so I have a pretty high level.  But I haven’t had too many formal classes, and have only studied it for about 2 ½ years.  My grammar is a weak point, but I thought I was doing pretty well on the speaking front. I was even riding high on a wave of confidence after a party where lots of native Spanish speakers complimented me on my excellent accent and speaking prowess. I even got mistaken for a local!

proud-student-A+

I was feeling like this – A+ in Spanish and IN LIFE!
Source: Shutterstock

A few days later out of nowhere, a Spanish friend said it was soooo obvious I was a foreigner, first because of my appearance, then because of my way of speaking, which he specified was a strong accent. 

I shut up immediately. I felt my face flush red, and I stammered “But…but is it THAT strong?”

I have never, ever been told I have a strong American accent, or even an American accent at all. Strong American accents in Spanish are ones that people refuse to respond to in Spanish because, well, it sounds like the speaker is still using English. I was confident that I was NOT that type of Spanish speaker, though obviously I do have an accent. However, the worst comment I’d gotten before was that it was ‘weird but not bad’ – which is fair enough.

Like this - totally weird, but definitely not in a bad way! Source: VisualizeUs

Like this – totally weird, but definitely not in a bad way! Source: VisualizeUs

Plus, as a sometimes-English teacher, I know very few non-native English speakers who I would mistake for native speakers because of their accents; however, this doesn’t mean they have strong ones. For me, a ‘strong’ accent is one you have trouble understanding, or one where you immediately know where the speaker is from. People never, ever guess I grew up in the U.S. from hearing me speak Spanish. Actually, I think I get Spanish-speaking countries more often than the U.S. So I’d never been too concerned about my accent.

Until this comment.

A few weeks ago, I felt a similar way when a German friend laughed and told me “you always say THIS, and it sounds so English!” It wasn’t such a big deal then*, although I was still a little stung. I felt like she’d been laughing at me while I repeatedly made a mistake (even though she definitely wasn’t – she was just helping me out and being nice, while I was being overly sensitive).

*I was halfway through a cocktail, the perfect remedy for eliminating language-based shame!

Stuff like this really shouldn’t be such a bad deal, but it sometimes makes me feel very upset and embarrassed. And it’s not like I can just stop speaking Spanish while my pride recovers; I use it every single day, professionally and personally.

It felt like having somebody tell you your outfit looks ridiculous while you’re out. You are stuck in the silly clothes and there’s nothing you can do about, no matter how much you want to. When that happens to me, the first thing I want to do is shove the offending item of clothing back into my closet and change it for something better. Sadly, I can’t do that with my accent.

Source: WittyWomanWriting

Source: WittyWomanWriting

Here’s the thing – I know I definitely do make mistakes. Sure, chatting with natives is supposedly the only way to really learn a language, but I don’t get the error correction that’s so important in classes. If I make a mistake, I want people to TELL me, not let me keep doing it. Sometimes people feel weird about correcting me, but it’s certainly much worse for my Spanish if I keep making the same mistake. And then I really will feel dumb when I eventually realize I’ve been making it for ages and nobody has said anything about it….which is why I feel so upset about the comment about my accent.

To feel ashamed, humiliated, embarrassed, and worried as I went about my daily routine didn’t help me improve it either. Yes, I overreacted – I’ll be the first one to admit it! But sometimes it’s hard here. I automatically stick out for my appearance, and people make some pretty unpleasant assumptions based on that. Even though people sometimes attribute nice things to ‘exotic’ me, the downside of it is always, always, always being on display. I’ve had the luxury of never having this problem before in my life.

Now, I’m definitely not saying I’ve experienced any harsh discrimination, but it’s really strange and uncomfortable to stick out whether you like it or not. Some days, I want nothing more to just not be noticed. I try my hardest to always speak Spanish, even when I’m having ‘stupid brain’ days where nothing comes out right. So to basically be told “Nope, nice try guiri, but you still stick out no matter what” was not fun. I felt stupid.

Source: The Australian

Source: The Australian

Actually, I felt so stupid I didn’t even feel like going out to a party. Normally, I love parties – the bigger, the better – but I was too self-conscious about my voice that I just couldn’t work up the nerve to go to a party full of Spaniards. I didn’t want to stand out, or get laughed at.

The past few days, I’ve been stumbling over stuff I know exactly how to say and avoiding using Spanish. This isn’t good, and I know I need to just move on. But it’s hard to try, try, try, and then to still come up short – especially as I am pretty hard on myself about everything.

And here’s the real catch-22 – the more self-conscious you are, the worse your language gets. Nobody just starts out speaking a language perfectly. It’s a long, hard process, and maybe you’ll never get mistaken for a native speaker, even after years of study. That’s okay. Mistakes don’t mean you speak badly or can’t communicate. Everybody makes mistakes, and the trick to improving is just to stop stressing and move on. 

Still, the world is allegedly ending on the 21st, so naturally everybody in Barcelona wants to throw a house party this weekend. Maybe I’ll gulp down a caña or two to take the edge off the sting of shame, head off to a party, and get back into the old español (excuse me, castellano – I am in Catalunya!).

And if the party looks like this, improving my Spanish can't be that bad, right? Source: BBC

And if the party looks like this, improving my Spanish can’t be that bad, right? Source: BBC

Because having struggled through months in Sevilla with no more Spanish than “¿Dónde está el baño?” and no English speakers in sight, I know I just have get over it and push forward.

That doesn’t make it any easier though. 

Do any other language learners have tips for getting over feeling embarrassed?

*Also, let me emphasize one more time that neither of my friends did anything wrong or mean in these situations – the problem was my reaction. I’m afraid we had a minor misunderstanding, and I want to make sure the point I want to comes across. My friends are awesome and I love them to death. 

Besos!

-Jess

37 thoughts on “Learning Spanish: Getting Over Feeling Embarrassed

  1. It’s so funny that you are hurt by the Spanish NOT telling you when you’ve said something incorrectly, whereas here, Germans are so blunt you likely end up in tears by the time they’re done ‘scolding’ you on what you said that is wrong (been there, done that). Not that they’d be able to articulate why. You’d just be wrong, and that’s the important part. Ahh, cultural differences… 😉

    Best of luck progressing with your Spanish! I’d say the fact that you’ve been mistaken for a local, even once, is a huge win. I’m pretty sure I will never be mistaken for a German where my speaking is concerned, not even if we lived here for 20 years!

    • Ohh scolding might lead me to tears too! A happy medium is probably the best – some error correction, but no scolding!

      Thanks for the supportive comment, and best of luck with your German too. In all fairness, I think German is probably harder for lots of reasons.

    • Ok, i’m outing myself as the blunt German friend who made that comment… 😉 Oh noo, Jess, i feel bad right now and i’m really sorry if I hurt your feelings in that moment. I really didn’t mean to “scold” you or sth!! If I remember it right, it wasn’t your accent I commented on, but a grammatical thing, so I thought you might want to know.. but I wasn’t laughing at you, I just found it cute because it was one of those typical mistakes that result from translating something directly from your mother tongue. So for me it was more like “two guiris exchanging their language issues (and other ones)”. 😉 I guess it’s always difficult to express those things without it coming of the wrong way, and Kate might be right, maybe it is a cultural thing.

      You know that I was very self-conscious about my accent too (and still am), but I kind of accepted that I’ll never sound 100% like a native speaker. There are just some words I’m unable to pronounce right, but when people pick up on that I think the best thing you can do is to make fun of yourself.. so I usually try to pronounce the word again and again to make people laugh and to demonstrate it’s just impossible for me to get it right. Or I present them my Top 5 of Spanish words that are impossible to pronounce. Or I make them say the German word “Streichholzschächtelchen”.
      Just don’t take it too seriously, people usually don’t make comments to make you feel bad, but because they find your accent funny or cute. Although I know that it’s annoying anyway.

      You can be proud of yourself, Jess, you speak really really good Spanish and when people hear you’re from the US they’re impressed even more because of the cliché that Americans usually don’t try too hard to learn other languages (sorry;)).
      And you know we get a lot of positive comments too, almost every time we go out together people are surprised by the two blonde guiris that speak Spanish to each other, and actually pretty well – so we’re not that “guiri” at all, right?! Ha!
      Un beso grande, guapa, no te preocupes tanto por lo que piensa la gente.. ets la millor! :*

      • Ooh chica, I didn’t mean for you to interpret it that way! You weren’t blunt at all, I just overreacted because I get embarrassed about my Spanish. I didn’t mind at all that you pointed it out, I was just being stupid.

        Kate who left the comment about scolding Germans actually lives in Germany right now, so it’s not at all about you. I’m so sorry if I wasn’t clear enough, so I’ve updated my paragraph about that to make it clearer.

        Espero que estes disfrutando Alemania! 🙂 Besos!

  2. I learned early, early on to not even care what they think. My students make fun of me all the time, but I see it as my way of learning and get them to see it my way, too. Don’t be afraid anymore!!

    I fool anyone NOT from Andalucía, but as for those here, my freckles and red hair give me away easily, but the r’s really do me in!

    • Not being afraid is a good call! Just gotta work on making it happen now…

      And yeah, being a blue-eyed blonde I get the same thing. Somebody once told me “Yeah, you speak great but nobody will EVER mistake you for a Spaniard or Latina because of how you look!”

  3. It sounds like you’ve had lots of compliments about your Spanish, but just one person has said you have a strong accent. I would say the balance is definitely in your favour! I usually find the people that criticise you for not achieving some impossibly high standard are the ones who speak not a word of any foreign language themselves – those who do are far more understanding because they know just how difficult it is. If you want someone to correct your Spanish, by the way, the best way is to get together with a tandem partner who seriously wants you to correct their English.

    • Yes, I agree that the harshest criticism always comes from people who don’t speak another language themselves, or have taken very little in high school and are convinced it’s easy to learn.

      Tandem partners are a good idea! I’ve just got to work on finding one who’s sticking around here.

  4. I really enjoy throwing myself into the language when I’m in Spain – it’s the only speaking practice I really get after all – but once in a while I’ll come unstuck and retreat into my shell. I got really embarrassed in Valencia last year, and all I was doing was buying a ticket! But my Spanish skills just went into meltdown and I pretty much shied away from it for the rest of the day.

    Thankfully a party the same night was actually just what I needed to get my confidence back. I can’t imagine the wine had anything to do with that of course…

    Great post, and just think millions of people have gone through moments like these in learning a language, only to push on and develop further than they ever thought they could. Hope you get your confidence back soon! 🙂

    • Yeah, I’m definitely having an ‘unstuck’ week. Luckily, it usually comes back after my ego bruising heals. 🙂

      Thanks for the vote of confidence, and hooray to language learning!

  5. My father has been living in the USA for 30 years and while by this point, he speaks fluent English, he still has a French accent when he speaks English. People understand him when he speaks, but he will never be mistaken for a native English speaker. There are certain words he mispronounces, no matter how many times he has been corrected. One of the hilarious mispronunciations is the way he pronounces “dangerous.” It comes out sounding like “dan-jer-oos” instead of “dane-jer-ous” (well the correct way you usually pronounce dangerous!). He also pronounced guitar gueeee-tar.

    You just have to accept the fact you will make many mistakes. I remember days where I would feel like I was on top of the world because I didn’t have a lot of trouble speaking Spanish. Then I would somehow run into a mental roadblock and go through a few days where I didn’t seem to get anything right, forgetting basic vocabulary. I’ve always been told I speak Spanish with a French tinged accent, which isn’t very surprising. So I always threw Spaniards off when I said I was from New York and my name was Amelie!

    • Your dad’s accent sounds so cute! I don’t know why I’m so critical of my own accent, I love them in English.

      And yeah, speaking Spanish is exactly the same for me. Some weeks, it’s like you know everything, and other it’s just a struggle. You win some, you lose some!

  6. As a Canadian anglophone, I used to be mortified when I’d try to speak French and it didn’t sound perfect. However, once I started traveling on my own, learning the local language became a necessity (otherwise, no finding anything – toilets, food, metro). When the opportunity arises, I’ll ask the nearest, friendliest-looking person how to pronounce something or a helpful phrase. It’s certainly not language immersion by any means, I’ve had a lot of fun and met some nice people while trying not to mangle their language.

    • Exactly, the point of speaking another language is really to have fun and meet people after all! Most people appreciate the effort rather than demanding 100% perfect results as well.

      It’s amazing how much you learn when the language becomes a necessity, isn’t it?

  7. I had the same problem! (I couldn’t even enter a shop without getting nervous). When I lived in Denmark, people actually spoke in English to me, here in Spain, I’ve only experienced people speaking to me in Spanish, but when I say I’m not from Spain they ask why I’m not blond (that I’m from Denmark) and why I speak so well Spanish. I do also make mistakes though and I’ve just learned to laugh at it. I’m normally aware of it after a phrase, but when people tell me that they don’t understand what I’m actually saying, I realise that I need to open a dictionary way more often! 🙂

  8. Pingback: Fuzzy brain, fumbling words | see molly run (away)

  9. I can relate. Some days I feel odd and embarrassed and I have noticed it depends on who I’m talking too. When I’m around other Americans speaking with Spanish speakers, I get caught up in comparing myself and I feel like my brain shuts off…

    It reminds me of when you find a guy attractive and go talk to him in English and you stumble over your words!

    I also notice that when I start my day in Spanish whether it’s at 9am or 5pm (when I first speak in Spanish for the day), it always takes me a moment to get in the flow…
    And I trip up on the littlest things. These days I’m noticing my errors half the time la/el…
    But I agree, I would rather know when I’m making a mistake than NOT.

    Good advice, Cat!

    • It’s definitely like the cute guy tongue-tied syndrome, I like that!

      I have the same problem when I start comparing myself to other language learners. It’s tough not to do, but it really doesn’t help. At least the upside is that as time goes on, it’s easier to get in the flow.

  10. Interesting post.

    As an English teacher I actually encourage mistakes among my spanish students, if I can see that there’s one coming and the context is right. It’s the perfect way of ensuring that the mistake isn’t made again. I wouldn’t correct for the sake of correcting when the mistake simply isn’t relevant to the overall meaning as this only serves to embarrass and discourage the speaker from speaking in the future!

    Unfortunately, there are many Spanish speakers (often who are unable to speak another foreign language themselves) that don’t see it that way, and just dive straight in with corrections whenever possible. At first this made me feel stupid and hopeless at learning languages, but now I just recognise it as ‘that type’ of correction and don’t get hung up on it. Yeah sure i’ll make the same mistake again, but that’s how languages are learnt!

    Josh

    • Thanks for your interesting comment, Josh!

      I agree, when I’m teaching English I want my students not to be afraid to make mistakes, otherwise they just sick to the basics and never improve. In real-life situations, sometimes I’m not aware I’m making mistakes and I wish I had a teacher who could nip it in the bud. But as you say, overcorrection is definitely discouraging (as Kate pointed out earlier in the comments). A happy medium is the best!

      The blogger from a Spy in the House of Words above said something similar too – it’s often the people who don’t speak another language who are the least sympathetic to people learning their language. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

  11. Hola Yessica!

    You’re post is full of truth! As a native speaker of both spanish and catalan you almost portrayed my everyday life adjusting here in Paris. Even now when I’m beggining to speak fluent french I have a system shutdown once in a while. In those days I just proudly speak crappy french and make everyone know its my crappy day. That is to say that if you overcome you’re shyness, which I have no doubt you will, you’ll have less and less these steps backwards.

    That being said, I know that in Barcelona we are not among the most helpfull when encouraging others to speak our languages. But if you stick to you’re initial speak-all-the-time-in-spanish you wil be rewarded. My advice is that you speak spanish even with your non native speaker friends. This is the best way. I myself found very usefull to hangout wiht a group of Italians with who I spoked only in french. It works so well primarly because they spoke the same crappy french and we were able to help each other when mentally blocked. And be proud of you’re accent, there’s no shame on that. 🙂

    No te rindas! Nos encanta la gente que viene de fuera y quiere adaptar-se. Animo!

    • Gracias Albert! 🙂

      Feeling embarrassed and having a ‘system shutdown’ seems to happen to almost everyone learning a language! I like your idea of being proud and open about a slow day, I’ll try that one out.

      People in Barcelona are often very excited to practice their English (understandably so!). But I speak in Spanish about 95% of the time, even with non-natives. It does help, like you said.

      Molta sort amb el francès!

  12. Hello Jess,

    Don’t be ashamed because you have a good level of Spanish and everyone has a bad day. Even if you spoke worse, you shouldn’t blame yourself for that.

    It’s obvious for a spanish native (like me) that you could not speak like him, of course, but the same for English with english native people.

    My English isn’t also proficient and I have to use it everyday at work. So just keep doing what you can do, and stop thinking about bad things, just relax and keep learning everyday as everybody should 🙂

  13. This post completely resonated with me! As a Spanish teacher, I feel judged to the nth degree on my Spanish because people think I should be fluent. I hate being asked if I am. I am functionally fluent, but I know I have a lot to learn. The challenge is keeping our self-confidence up. Even when after days and days talking to the same Catalan I was interrupted mid-sentence and told it’s “pero,” not “perro.” So much for me trying to show off with my rolling of the “r”. It helps reminding myself that speaking another language is no easy task, but I’m doing it, whether it’s perfect or not. And as you said, there’s always alcohol to ease the awkwardness.

    • Agh the ‘Are you fluent?’ question is a frustrating one. I think it’s so cool that you’re a Spanish teacher and assume you speak very well, but I bet people assume you speak 100% like a native all the time, which is a really tall order.

      But like you said, the best thing is to stay confident, remember that it’s a big task, and that we’re doing it!

  14. As you can see, this post really resonated with people.

    I think commenting on a person’s accent is quite rude; it’s okay to correct someone (if that’s what they want!) but an accent is an accent. I mean, you can always try to improve it, but I’m of the opinion that having a perfect Spanish accent is unachievable. You can have perfect grammar, though, so I’m trying 🙂

  15. I speak Spanish better than I write. That’s due to it that I learned Spanish when I worked there few months. This means that I learned it like a child learns. So if You are a friend of grammar, do not visit my posts!

  16. Interesting post! I’m sitting here thinking… when they comment on my accent I will be thrilled. That will be so much further along than now, when I sometimes get the look that says – I have no idea what you are trying to say. I’m sure as non native speakers we will always have accents, but so what? Communicating is the goal, and you are doing that very well. I know what you mean about corrections though. My neighbors never correct me and then I get back with my teacher and find out I’ve been saying all sorts of things wrong. She corrects everything which isn’t as much fun but like medicine, it’s very good for me.

    • Haha those looks are hilarious. I don’t get them too often anymore, but they always send me into such a state of panic, which makes everything worse.

      But like you said, communicating is the goal, and as long as we get there eventually we’re doing great! Poco a poco…

  17. Hola Jessica!! I totally understand your feelings of embarassment and shame about having the worng accent. I am learning Spanish myself too 🙂
    I was wondering if you can give me some helpful tips on WHAT exactly was wrong with your accent in the beginning of the artcicle. Maybe you can help me with my accent by teaching me what your old accent sounded like and how you corrected it!
    MUCHISIMAS GRACIAS JESSICA!!!!!!!!!!!! <<<<<<<<<<3333333333333333

    From, Lindsay

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