Last year, we were living in Oaxaca, I was taking advanced conversation classes, then we left for the States to travel for the summer (and avoid Zika because I was pregnant). Our kids were attending a local school for most of the year.
We traveled for four months in the US, then we returned to Mexico in September to have the baby, but instead of going back to our old routines, I spent six months or so recovering from post-partum anxiety. I didn’t speak any Spanish – not conversational Spanish anyway. I still spoke basic restaurant-Spanish but when people switched to English, I didn’t fight it. I was tired. The hormonal changes left me wracked with anxiety that I could physically feel in my limbs. It felt like I had just been pulled over by the cops and I had a dead body in my trunk. Dread. Adreneline. Daily. I wasn’t sleeping. It was okay in a way, because it was disconnected from my mood, I just felt physically terrible but I was otherwise upbeat, in love with my new baby and just trying to find a solution to this curious ailment.
I tried to get medical help, but I was told to just get some sleep. (And to stop worrying.) So I treated myself with daily efforts to get sunshine and go for long walks, even though it was hard. Slowly, over the months, either it worked or my body just changed, but now I feel mostly back to normal. I have my brain back. I can think again! (I hadn’t even noticed fuzziness as a symptom until it was gone.)
Now, ten months after leaving Oaxaca for travels, baby-birthing and recovery, we’re back. We’ve been traveling around Mexico the past month, but it’s here in my old stomping grounds – and a place were we naturally fold into Mexican life, living outside of the tourist bubble and finding ourselves talking to people in Spanish more, I can see how drastically my language skills had dropped.
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There is a half-life to language learning. It deteriotes much faster than you can possibly learn it. If there was a formula for such a thing, my own experience is that you lose half of your language abilities in the first few months of not using the language. Then half of that. If your fluency was a number you’d watch it drop: 100, 50, 25, 13, 6, 3, 2, 1…
My children have lost their Spanish too. They were attending school full time in the language, and when we first started traveling last month they couldn’t answer the simple question: “¿Cómo te llamas?”
I’ve been working on bringing the Spanish back into our lives. Just little things, when we’re walking around, I try to use phrases they might recognize.
Dame tu mano (give me your hand)
Vamonos (let’s go)
Mas adelante (keep going/further)
Cruza la calle conmigo (cross the street)
¿Qué quieres hacer/tomar/comer? (what do you want to do/drink/eat?)
Or just pointing out little things like the names of fruit or objects around the house.
Today was something of a breakthrough with my kids, because I was telling my daughter, “Vamos a regresar esta noche, okay? Entonces, no llorando, vaya por dentro y sentarte, por favor,” as I was trying to get her out of the park (without buying anything) with the promise that we would return, don’t cry, go inside and sit down.
The practical test for me is if I have to switch to English to make tricky situations like this work. It’s hard to diffuse a four year old in any situation, but she was really intent on getting her way, so she had to understand that I was promising to return that night but it was conditional on her doing a few things for me (stop crying, get in and sit down).
Afterwards, she spontaneously used the Spanish to yell at her brother, “Es mia!” (it’s mine!).
We have about five months to catch up to our old standard – then we return to the States where it will be lost all over again. Why do we keep working on it? Because it’s important to us. I know my children are benefitting from the language even if they don’t become balanced bilinguals, because it’s teaching them an important lesson about inclusion, the work and effort it takes to adapt and not being afraid to fail. The effort is worth it.