The Path to Fluency is Sometimes through The Bathroom
By Kenneth Powers
As any language learner will tell you, the hardest hurdle to clear is the embarrassment one feels when trying to converse with native speakers. A few years ago, before my Spanish was even remotely conversational, I was out for a drink with my girlfriend at the time, a 22 year old Argentine woman I had met working in Utah the year before. We got along famously right off the bat and one thing led to another until I was in San Fernando, Argentina, just forty minutes south of Buenos Aires proper, living with this girl and her family (none of whom spoke English) for a few weeks one summer.
At the time I was 24 years old, had just gotten back into school and was minoring in Spanish, which seemed like a good idea, considering the woman I was dating was a native Spanish speaker who spoke little English. My Spanish at the time was, at best, really bad. Her parents spoke even less English than I spoke Spanish. So, needless to say, it was an interesting couple of weeks. Trying to help her father with the barbecue, for example, featured much gesturing, broken Spanglish and little else.
My first night there I was taken out to a bar where smoking inside was allowed and thus began several weeks of culture shock. I asked my girlfriend, in English, where the bathroom was. She gave me a coy look and said “Why don’t you go ask someone?” With an apprehensive smile I agreed and went to find a server to ask. When I came upon the only one I could find, with a big smile I proudly asked “¿Dónde está el baño?” To say I was unprepared for the response I got would be like saying a toddler was unprepared for a graduate-level exam in applied cosmology. A blur of rapid Argentine Spanish and a gesture toward a nearby flight of stairs led me to believe I might just find a bathroom upstairs. So upstairs I went.
As it turns out, Argentina has a vastly different attitude to some things than we do here. I was correct in my assumption that the rapid Argentine Spanish and gesture toward the stairs meant the bathroom was indeed located above my head, but what I may have missed was a warning that the upstairs section of the bar was also, in fact, a dark and (not so) secluded sex area. Full of futons, end tables and couples in varying degrees of undress, I was faced with something of a dilemma as I saw the universal symbol for bathroom on the other side of the room. The room which, as previously mentioned, currently played host to a number of couples doing what could be conservatively referred to as “the nasty”.
I managed to go to the bathroom, the call of nature easily outweighing my embarrassment at picking my way through a room full of people having some horizontal fun, though not the embarrassment I felt at asking if there was another bathroom anywhere. My Spanish was admittedly much worse then than it is now, but I had been studying Spanish on and off for years, and conversing when I could with my native-speaker girlfriend, and I still had no chance of finding that bathroom without that gesture toward the stairs. I would have smiled like a fool, said “gracias” and walked away, still needing to use the bathroom.
Actual natural conversation is so difficult to achieve in a classroom that when beginning students are faced with a real need to communicate they freeze up. I still do. My limited vocabulary has the frustrating tendency of disappearing anytime I really need it. There is hope for all of us, though, because to overcome this embarrassment is to surmount the scariest and most difficult segment of the trail to the top of Mt. Fluency. Just remember that the scariest segment is immediately followed by the longest: the trail from Conversational Point to Fluency Peak.