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What Traveling With a Stutter Taught Me About Learning Languages

A reformed perfectionist details her experience learning a new language, while facing her fear of stumbling over her Spanish.

“Con c-hhocolate p-por favor,” I said to the waiter with tense shoulders and a fast-beating heart. Churros con chocolate at Cafe Fútbol had become my favorite treat in Granada, Spain. Each sip and dip caused my lips to curl so wide you could see my laugh lines. After a day of people watching in Federico García Lorca Park with my study-abroad friends, it was the ideal snack.

Though this time, my cheeks felt warm, and my lips curled for all the wrong reasons. I felt my chair rattle in the tender Andalusian air as I turned back to look towards my friends. My taste buds retreated, replaced by a gnawing pit in my stomach like when you get caught in the wrong.

Why? Because I stuttered. Out loud. In public.

A stutter is a communication disorder common in kids aged two to six. It is defined as talking with continued involuntary repetition of sounds, especially initial consonants, and affects about 70 million people worldwide. While there is no singular cause of why it occurs, it links to early language development, genetics, and anxiety.

Yet, at 20 years old, stuttering was not new for me. I worked with a speech pathologist throughout elementary school. I can recount the many times I fumbled while reading aloud in class. And my stutter was a great practice of patience for my brothers. The stutter in English? That was old. The stutter in Spanish was new.

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No one ever explained that eliminating a stutter in one language does not mean it is gone in another. In my 11 years of Spanish classes, I conjugated all the verbs. I memorized vocabulary to talk about food, professions, politics, etc. I even created a 10-minute role-play for a Spanish media class in college. No test could have prepared me for this. But I knew I wasn’t going to let my stutter stop my fluency either.

Baffled by the nostalgic sound of my stuttering voice, I dragged my feet across the cobblestone floor and into the office of my Resident Director the following week.  As she observed my body language, her brow furrowed. Then, without hesitation, I spilled all the goods. She gently nodded her head up and down, her eyes never leaving me as I spoke. When I finally took a breath, she perked up to speak, and I opened a notebook ready to take her advice.

Of course, she encouraged me to practice whenever I could. More specific tips included speaking slowly, learning “filler” conversation words, and singing along to slow-medium Spanish songs to enunciate better. She also reminded me that talking fast does not mean one is  fluent and not to compare oneself to other study-abroad students.

The next time I went to Cafe Fútbol, I took a few deep breaths to calm my nerves before ordering churros. If I felt a stutter on the horizon meeting new people at a tapas bar, I used “pues” (which means “well”) to give myself time to think. “Bailando” (by Enrique Iglesias) and “El Perdón” (by Nicky Jam featuring Enrique Iglesias) played everywhere in 2015, so those were my go-to songs. However, mid-semester, I realized the unspoken tip: dare to stutter and speak Spanish anyway.

As a reforming perfectionist, I was afraid to admit the fear of making mistakes hindered my language confidence back then. While this didn’t stop me from ordering drinks in Spanish on a boat cruise in Málaga or taking a Spanish-language tour of the Mezquita in Córdoba, I was so preoccupied with speaking perfectly that I didn’t want to talk at all. So even when my Spanish host mom noted my improvement, I still didn’t believe in my abilities.

Since I wasn’t perfect, how could I truly be improving? That mindset was pure self-sabotage, which manifested into a language barrier I thought was long gone. The feelings of inadequacy in my head were channeled through my mouth. My professors, friends, or strangers in clubs didn’t want me to be perfect–they just wanted me to try.

Three years later, I found my lips curled and my laugh lines beaming again. Now dipping into solo travel, my purse and I meandered along the streets of another Spanish-speaking city: Valladolid, Mexico. I spotted a near-empty cafe a few streets away from the center. I walked over and sat in an empty wooden chair with glistening skin touched by the sun. In 90-degree weather, I traded my churros con chocolate for a mango smoothie instead. The kicker? I confidently did it in Spanish without a stutter.

Yeah, I got this now.