This is My Brain on Spanish: Learning Language as an Adult

Sharon Barr
5 min readFeb 18, 2020

I am sitting in a nail salon in Oaxaca. Carmen, the young manicurist sporting a black t-shirt with a white skull and the words “NEW YORK NEW YORK”, smiles at me hopefully. This, I think, is the test of my Spanish learning so far: nail salon chit-chat. I’m not that good at it in English and for some reason, the thought of it is more anxiety-producing than conjugating verbs. How do I make small talk with a twenty-year old in Spanish? “Just go for it,” I think to myself, “it’s not an exam.” And soon enough, Carmen and I are chatting about our families, our work and gel colors. I learn the words for cuticle (cutícula) and “take your hands out when it beeps” (saque los manos cuando suene).

I’ve just completed Week 2 of a three-week immersion at the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca. Oaxaca is full Americans — many retired, many studying Spanish, many artists, some spending weeks and months and returning annually. The ICO is housed in a leafy school compound with the feel of a colonial hacienda, framed by shaded patios and abundant tropical plants.

If learning new things is a way to stave off senility, if nothing else, I will keep my marbles for a while longer. In Spanish, the word for puzzle is rompecabezas which literally means “head-breaker”. It’s an apt word for learning a new language as an adult. I envy children learning a new language — they imitate, absorb, charge ahead without fear. Adults approach it like solving a jigsaw puzzle, put the blue pieces over here, the red ones over there, and eventually you will have a picture. We try to discern patterns and solve a problem.

For many English speakers, the patterns are challenging because we lack context, as if we are working on a jigsaw puzzle but don’t know what the final picture is supposed to look like. Take the subjunctive tense, for example. A verb tense that is essential to Spanish, yet is so bewildering to English speakers that many simply decide to ignore it. I’ve heard more than one person say “they understand what I’m saying without the subjunctive, so forget it”. True enough, just as I understand what someone means if they were to say “She have go…

Sharon Barr

Urbanist who lives in the wilderness. Planner + Strategist. Real estate consultant to nonprofits. Attorney. Traveler (both near and far). Yoga teacher. Writer.