Search for my tongue

Studying Spanish made me question my very existence on many occasions. At university, I wondered over and over why I’d chosen a subject that actively brought me stress and unhappiness, that pushed me so far out of my comfort zone.

When I moved to Spain after graduating, the doubts didn’t go away. It took me years of hard work and guilt and self-doubt to be comfortable speaking in Spanish, and many more to become truly fluent. Then I moved to Mexico and felt like I’d skipped backwards several years, to a time when I was still second-guessing every word I said. Again, it took a lot of effort to get back to the level I was at, and finally to surpass it. I may have ended up with a weird hybrid accent and a bunch of stubborn mistakes so ingrained that I’ll never fully lose them, but Spanish has become so much a part of me that it’s almost like a second native language.

Would things have been easier for me if I’d stayed in my English-speaking home country? Undoubtedly. Living in another language makes everything just a little harder than it needs to be; as if a switch has been flipped and life has ramped up into “expert mode”. But having learned a language to the level I have, I can say without hesitation that it was worth it. The structures of Spanish have revealed pathways and connections in my brain that I never knew were there, made me think about the world in new ways, made me into a whole other person.

So far so good. But two years ago I left Mexico and moved to the Netherlands for work. I arrived in Amsterdam full of excitement and threw myself into my first few Dutch classes. But my enthusiasm soon waned, and almost two years later, I haven’t learned the language in the way I hoped. In fact, I’ve resisted it. I can’t find room in my head or my heart to acquire one language while desperately clinging onto another.

At first I wasn’t worried about forgetting Spanish altogether. Surely I’d lived with it – lived through it – for too long and used it too extensively for that? But it wasn’t long before I noticed a certain hesitancy creeping into my writing, making me double check my words before I shared them, a slight rustiness that made me slower to speak up, lazier in my sentence structures, left me tongue-tied mid-conversation. It doesn’t help that I’ve already seen other languages slip away from me: my nine years of French almost vanished, my once-confident Catalan now muddied and mixed up.

The sweat and tears that went into learning these languages are one reason to fear forgetting, but it’s so much more than that. I have several friends in Spain who I’ve only ever spoken to in Spanish, some of whom don’t speak any English at all. After a year in Mexico, I came back with a whole new accent and vocabulary, and one of those friends told me, “Si me cierro los ojos, ya no eres tú” – “If I close my eyes, it’s not you any more.”

That comment enough was a shock. Spain was the place I’d lived since university, where I’d grown up and got a real job, where I’d blossomed and become an adult, where I’d adapted to a different culture and struggled to fit in. Living in Mexico was a dream come true, but Spain was where I truly felt at home and I didn’t want to lose the roots I’d put down there.

Three years on from that comment, sounding like a stranger to my friends is the least of my worries. Now it’s bigger, deeper, more gut-wrenching. What if I lost my fluency and struggled to speak to those friends at all? In practice I know it’s unlikely – I would never let it get to that stage – but on a theoretical level, it could happen. My Spanish-speaking self exists outside of me, a parallel entity who depends on me keeping up my hard-earned skills. If I never practiced Spanish again, “La Lauren” would slowly fade away, and the person that my friends knew and cared about would cease to exist.

There’s no clever conclusion here, no grand ideas about what it all means or what I should do about it, but voicing these thoughts feels like a first step towards making some kind of decision. Stay and throw myself wholeheartedly into Dutch life – and the Dutch language – or go back to the place where my heart already lies?