Of Broken Espresso Machines and Trilingualism

It wasn’t a good sign when the espresso machine at school was broken. 8am classes and a lack of coffee makes for grumpy students. My friend was particularly tired and put out by the lack of caffeine, so we made plans to go to the nearby bakery during the break in our writing class.

She brought two others with her, making me the only non-Argentine in the group. Normally a foreigner in the midst is a cause for people to speak French, but I told them they could speak Spanish if they wanted and I would listen. As we bought our coffee, I enjoyed listening to the lilting intonation of Argentine Spanish, so different from what I learned in Spain.

We walked back to the school building and were joined by another Argentine. They continued to talk, and I inserted the occasional comment. One girl asked if I could understand what they were saying. I told her that I could understand everything, but that I tended not to speak as much because I would mix up my Spanish with my French. She kindly told me how she did the same with French and English.

I was content to be a passive listener, but she then asked me why I was learning French. As I told her what I was going to be doing in Cameroon, it came out mostly in Spanish, but with every couple of words in French. The guys started smiling, not in a mean way, but in a way that I interpreted to say something to the effect of “You are so cute to be mixing up your languages right now.”

Normally when this happens, it’s an exercise in frustration and futility. I’ve studied Spanish formally for ten years, including a year abroad in Spain. You would think I would be able to speak it well on command. However, the context was all wrong. I am in the same building as my French classes, speaking to people with whom I normally speak in French. I was amazed that I could speak any Spanish at all. But even with the mixing of two languages, I could still express myself and get my meaning across. And instead of being frustrated, I was amazed at how much my French had a hold on my brain that it was coming quicker than my Spanish.

I spoke English later with some friends, filling in the third angle of the triangle. I think speaking all three languages today made me feel complete, as if all of me had found some means of expression not available in the other tongues. And while French has definitely been a struggle, I think today I began to love it a little more.

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