Laughs in Translation

By Sarah Custen

The road to second language fluency is paved with surprising milestones, well beyond memorizing vocabulary or mastering a particular grammar point. I was already more than competent in Spanish when I moved to Spain, at 23, for work. Still, it would be a solid five months before I could understand the evening news, which I watched almost nightly with my three Spanish roommates, and even longer before I could confidently order a pizza by phone. Then came eavesdropping, or what one of the (infinite) Marías termed “poniendo el antena” (putting your antenna up), and then overhearing: the ability to comprehend without even necessarily trying.  

But the last bastion was, and remains, humor. I could understand Spanish jokes, even if I didn’t appreciate them (blackface and bananas, anyone?), but I couldn’t effectively express my own sense of humor, an integral part of my English-speaking self.  

I remember clearly one night, when I was out with that same María–who was fluent in English from years spent in London–and my multilingual French friend, Sebastian. We were drinking claras and cracking wise at a narrow, old-timey bar near my work. Despite her fluency, María and I mostly stuck to Spanish at home, for Marta and other María’s sakes. At the bar, though, chispada (tipsy), I was free to be…me, in my natural, native tongue, as Sebastien and I lapsed into our typical teasing, sarcastic routine. About half a drink in, María turned to me, wonder sparkling in her round, green eyes. “Sarah,” she said, “you’re…funny!” 

We had lived together more than half a year at this point, our tiny rooms separated by a wall so thin I could tell what phase of sleep she was in.  

It was beyond validating to have someone so close to me, in a city and country that were decidedly not my own, recognize and revel in this essential part of myself; I felt seen, and I felt whole. I felt known.  

I think about this a lot, in regards to my adult ESL students, the way a second (or third, or fourth) language can diminish the self, shaving off parts of you once taken for granted: your sense of humor, confidence, charm. Your ability to argue, negotiate, or craft the perfect metaphor to lob at a lover in a fight.  

Lack of fluency pares down our outward-facing identity, reducing us to so much less than we’re capable of, false representatives of our own personalities. Others respond accordingly, treating language learners like children, robbing them of the respect they deserve. I even catch myself doing this, referring to my students, in conversation with friends, as “my babies,” “sweeties,” “cuties,” and so on, as though they aren’t fully-fledged adults with kids and careers and concerns of their own. I fall into the trap of seeing them through the lens of their limited linguistic ability, stripped of the rich and multifaceted layers of their humanity. Even when the stakes aren’t so high, the feeling of alienation persists. Unable to be in on the joke, it feels as though the joke is always on you, which is why shared moments of humor are magnificent, the sense of belonging heightened and invigorating.  

So when, in my class, late on a Tuesday night, Viktoria can’t remember the word “rooster” and blurts out, “It’s a–the chicken’s husband!” we laugh ourselves silly, together, because we’ve been there. We’ve wavered, at a total loss for words, feeling like outsiders, feeling like children. And now we are here, in this windowless room, doing our darndest to become our better selves, reveling in this silly little slip-up, this unintentional play on words, and recognizing that we share more than we knew–a sense of humor, and, increasingly, a newfound sense of self.