Nothing kills your confidence while learning a foreign language like realizing you have a stutter in that language. The same stutter that you spent your entire childhood trying to overcome in your first language.
Confused? I was too when I discovered this during my semester abroad in Granada, Spain. To help you understand how I got to that point, let’s go back to the early 2000s.
The beginning of my speech impediment
Since I’m a 90s baby, I went to elementary school from 1998 to 2005. Early on, my parents noticed I had a speech impediment. In my case it was a stutter, which is most commonly found between the ages of two and five.
In other words, I could not get my words out! It took me five minutes or more to speak one sentence into existence.
Though I don’t know the direct cause of mine, stuttering can be genetic and influenced by other developmental delays, or it can come from how someone develops and processes language and speech. It is defined by Cambridge Dictionary as speaking or saying part of a word with difficulty, especially by repeating it several times or pausing before it. I would also add that my stuttering is most common with initial consonants (ex. Never ask me to say “specialization” because you’ll be waiting forever).
In other words, I could not get my words out! It took me five minutes or more to speak one sentence into existence. Due to this, I was placed in one-on-one speech therapy throughout most of elementary school. However, I didn’t know it wasn’t required for everyone because I enjoy school. In my mind, meetings with the speech pathologist were an extension of spelling or reading classes.
Socially, there were times when my peers made fun of my stuttering and mimicked me. Some people would give me a blank stare when I couldn’t say a word or ask the person next to them what I was trying to say. I was already a shy kid, and it definitely caused some social anxiety and fear of engaging in conversations, but I persisted and kept talking nonstop. Practice makes perfect, right? By the time I went to middle school, my stutter was virtually gone and I began learning a new skill: Spanish.
Rediscovering the stutter, this time in Spanish
Though I began learning Spanish in 2005, I never truly needed it outside of class. The lessons focused more on reading, writing, and listening than speaking, so my stutter in Spanish never occurred to me. Fast forward to age 20, when I decided to study abroad.
I knew using Spanish daily would be a (welcomed) challenge—I prepared accordingly. I translated some personal fun facts for when I introduced myself, I knew how to tell my host mom I couldn’t eat Spain’s famous jámon ibérico(Iberian ham) because I was pescatarian, and I knew how to ask for directions if I ever got lost. Over the years I memorized conjugations and tons of vocabulary, and to better understand the culture I researched the Andalusian accent. In my mind, I was ready for the immersion, and I finally felt ready to use all the Spanish I had learned in real life situations.
The social anxiety and uncomfortableness I felt as a kid returned, but the reactions as a young adult with a stutter were a lot less forgiving.
Then I began stuttering over Spanish words, both old and new. I remember stuttering for a solid minute over the words tarjeta de crédito, which is Spanish for “credit card,” when I wanted to pay for my gelato in Granada. I remember the auras of impatience I received from waiters when I couldn’t order tapas without stuttering from a menu. The social anxiety and uncomfortableness I felt as a kid returned, but the reactions as a young adult with a stutter were a lot less forgiving.
It took a few more awkward encounters for me to realize: the progress I made with my stutter in English had not transferred to my second language. With friends or strangers, I felt discouraged when I couldn’t express myself in Spanish. My mind knew what I wanted to say, but my mouth couldn’t convey it. It was frustrating and made me not want to speak in front of anyone, which deterred me from the full-immersion experience. I was embarrassed.
The notion that speaking fast instantly makes you fluent, or better than anyone else learning a second language, is a myth.
Beating a stutter and boosting confidence in a second language
Despite my bruised ego, I persisted again. I sought help from a Spanish professor and my Resident Director about the situation. Together we found tools to diminish my tartamudea, the Spanish word for “stutter,” and they are skills that anyone learning a language can use.
Learn filler words to give yourself time
When attempting to use a new language, we can get ahead of ourselves due to nerves. I’ve used fillers such as pues (well), o sea (I mean), es que (it’s that), or a ver (let’s see), to ease this nervousness. By using the language itself, you avoid any awkward silence or pauses in a casual conversation. They give you some time to relax, think before you speak, and are also used by locals in conversation. You blend right in!
Sing slow songs in the target language
As much as Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” is a classic, it’s not the best song for second language-learning. Singing along to more slow tempo songs allows you to enunciate properly and avoid slurring phrases. Songs are also great for learning vocabulary, which is helpful if you can’t pronounce a word and need to use a different one. Fittingly, “El Perdón” by Nicky Jam and Enrique Iglesias was popular everywhere that semester and became my new favorite shower song. Though I’m sure this was to the dismay of my host mom…sorry Bernarda.
Talk to yourself
Sometimes language-learning is about the comfort and confidence of hearing your own voice in the target language. Have argumentative, persuasive, informative, and/or introductory conversations with yourself to prepare for the real thing. You can also record yourself to hear how you sound and where you can improve, and for further guidance have a native speaker listen to it for more tips. Between talking to yourself and singing you may sound ridiculous, yet this is my personal favorite!
Pursue intercambios with people around your level
Intercambios, which are language exchanges, are vital to fluency because you practice with a native speaker who can correct your grammar and/or vocabulary mistakes (for free)! To even the playing field, find someone whose level in your native language is around the same as yours in their native language. This isn’t to say you don’t love a good challenge, because you can always find someone whose language abilities are near-native in your language, but sometimes it’s easier to talk to someone when you can relate to their language-learning struggles.
Speed is not an indicator of fluency
The notion that speaking fast instantly makes you fluent, or better than anyone else learning a second language, is a myth. Sometimes fast talking is natural, and other times it just makes you skilled at slurring words to prove you don’t have a “gringo” accent. According to my professor, there are native speakers who speak slowly too! Learning a language is a process, so slow down, and take your time to do it right.
Speak proudly and don’t strive for perfection
To be honest, I barely speak English properly! Language-learning is not about perfection, and a speech impediment should not deter anyone from learning a new one. With Spain Spanish, it’s easy to become obsessed with sounding like a native speaker by rolling an “R,” or damn near spitting out your throat to say a “J” like the locals. This type of overthinking leads to nerves, then to butchering a language, and finally to social anxiety when you are corrected in front of a group. Yes, it’s embarrassing to make mistakes, but it is also the best way to learn. So speak and fumble away.
Two years post my Spanish stutter epiphany, I still stutter in both languages. Whether I get excited while talking to friends, or nervous in job interviews, I may never overcome it 100% in any language. Stutters appear when they want, and vary depending on the situation; I can’t control it. Language learning can be a nerve-wracking endeavor, thus stuttering can happen to anyone who gets butterflies speaking in a non-native language.
Yet, my stutter doesn’t prohibit me from continuing Spanish, learning a new language to connect with more people on my travels (French I’m coming for you), or prevent me from speaking my mind. Though basic phrases to survive are important, using a language while you travel is not all about prepared phrases. To learn a language is to make mistakes, and be corrected on them in stride. Embrace them, own them, and challenge yourself to keep learning. You’ll get the last word…eventually.
What have you learned about language, travel, and life while learning a foreign language? Can you relate to Sojourner’s experience, and do you find her tips helpful? Do you have any helpful language-learning tips to share? Share them in the comments!