How to speak Spanish perfectly

She was looking at me like I was a crazy person.

I had been living and working in Ecuador for well over a year.

After ages of study and immersion experiences, as well as a detour through Italian and Russian (yes, really), I had finally become fluent in Spanish.

In fact, I was so drenched in Spanish, I actually had a hard time remembering English words and forgot which language I was speaking at times.

No, I couldn’t believe it either.

But, everyone agreed: I spoke Spanish perfectly.

So, I had gone into the store to buy souvenirs for friends and family. I had selected an adorable Galapagos booby tee-shirt for my sister-in-law. Because who doesn’t love boobies, right? But, I wasn’t sure of the size.

The helpful salesgirl asked me to describe her. Well, she was a bit shorter than me. So, I was going to say, “ella tiene dos pulgadas menos que yo.”

“She has two less inches than me.”

But that’s not what came out of my mouth. What I did say was this, “ella tiene dos pulgas menos que yo.”

“She has two less FLEAS than me.”

Yes, I did. And she was clearly thinking: um…EXACTLY how many do you have?

Perfection=high level of skill with a strong probability of still falling on your face.

So, that was me speaking Spanish perfectly. Seriously.

That’s what perfect looks like.

It’s having a certain level of experience and skill and the confidence to laugh at yourself when you screw it up anyway.

Actual perfection is a terrible, awful, crippling myth.

If you are in thrall to Mr. Perfection, you should know right now that he will break your heart.

Tell him to get out. It’s not you, it’s him. And he needs to go.

Dump him as fast as you can. He’s a cruel illusion and there’s no love in him…The minute you try to stay above criticism, you’re lost in a world where you can only fail. -Barbara Sher

Years later, everyone still says I speak Spanish perfectly.

Which feels so far from the truth, I am often tempted to say: I do not think that means what you think it means.

But they insist. Non Spanish speakers (well, really, how hard is it to impress them?), Spanish speakers of different levels, even native Spanish speakers.

All of them.

But I think what they actually mean is that I can swim in those waters. I am fluent, fluid, the words flow. I can be myself and express anything I want in the language. I can communicate freely and with confidence.

And it is glorious.

But it is not error free. Never has been.

The road to perfect is potholed with erroros.

So how did I get to speak Spanish perfectly?

Trying and failing. With some more trying and failing. Capped off by another festive round of trying and failing.

By failing, I mean making mistakes.

You try, you blunder, you get better. Even the flea conversation improved my Spanish. I will never confuse those two words again. Ever. Neither will you.

Actual failure, well, that is refusing to even try because someone might see you get it wrong.

I’ve met so many people who let the fear of making mistakes keep them from ever speaking. They want to be careful, precise, smart. They study, they compose lines, they have conversations in their heads. But they will not speak.

But that’s not the way language and communication work. It’s not how most things work. They don’t happen in isolation, so you can’t hone them all by yourself. You have to get out in front of people and start interacting.

You have to risk looking like an idiot to be rewarded by those times you actually get it right.

All of those trials and errors are part of actually doing something difficult, instead of just wishing you could.

Also, don’t worry about looking like an idiot.

Most people don’t even master their first language. Speaking a second language, no matter how badly, puts you well ahead of the pack.

And who’s going to judge you? Your friends? They won’t understand what you are saying anyway. It will all just sound impressive, even if it IS nonsense.

Other students of Spanish? Unlikely. They have all been there. Every single one. They will commiserate, be sympathetic, and probably try to help you.

Native speakers? Definitely not. In my experience, native speakers LOVE when you try to speak their language, no matter how badly you actually do it.

Well, except for the French, don’t try this with the French. Screw the French. Yes, that.

Your risk=your reward.

All those people who never spoke, you know how well they now speak Spanish? Not at all. Not one word.

Not such a smart strategy, as it turns out: not trying for fear of making mistakes.

And how sad, really. To not try because you are desperately afraid of getting it wrong.

You wouldn’t ever do something so foolish, would you?

So, I risked falling on my face. And, as a result, have had some amazingly, “I can’t even believe this is my life” experiences in Spanish.

As a bonus, I have gotten the chance to tell people how many insects I possess, and other fun stuff I had no idea I wanted to share.

I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

I speak Spanish because I love it. Because I love how it feels when I do. Because I like who I am in Spanish.

I don’t need perfect. And neither do you. Not for anything you really want to do.

So, what about you? Ever had anyone look at you like you’re a crazy person?  Are you waiting for perfection? What you could YOU do if you weren’t worried about looking like an idiot? 


  1. dawnseverenuk

    Years ago, when I was doing flamenco in Spain, I had a buddy from California (young guy, in his early 20s) who was dead set on becoming a flamenco dancer. The deal he’d struck with his parents was either studying dance in Spain, or going to college, so P. chose the latter.

    Anyway: after suffering a bad ankle strain, he was back at it two weeks later, bandage and all, hammering away a choreography in one of the practice studios when one of his instructors, a former director of the Ballet Nacional de España, poked his head in the studio where P. was rehearsing. “What the $#?@ do you think you’re doing?” asked the director.

    “I gotta get this perfectly,” said P.

    “$#?@ ‘perfect’ “, said the instructor. “It doesn’t exist.”Now go home and rest before you do even more damage to yourself.

    • wendy

      LOVE it! Great story-“perfectly” illustrates that perfect doesn’t exist and the idiocy of pursuing perfect even when it damages you! Thanks Dawn!

  2. Alexandra

    My fluency in German started at 19 when I went to a beer tent and threw out my little pocket dictionary because I only had two hands: one for holding a liter of beer and one for wrestling a Bratwurst on a bun. Prost!

    More than 30 years later, I am very “fluent” and also still make mistakes.
    But, as you say, who really cares?
    Fleas and inches? How about mixing up schwül and schwul: humid or homosexual
    (Oh, what a gay day!).
    Or Schrot and Schrott? (I’d like some wholegrain bread/garbage bread, please).
    My aunt once went pink and choked on her cake when I said I still wanted to pass by the Rammelplatz (not Rummelplatz) on the way home: instead of the amusement park, I had said “banging/screwing” park.
    Well, that can also be a kind of “fun fair”, right? 🙂

    This lady got it right:
    I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did,
    but people will never forget how you made them feel. – Maya Angelou

    • wendy

      OMG,I just spit coffee all over my keyboard. You are the funniest! I love your priorities-screw the dictionary, as long as I have a liter of beer and a Bratwurst, I am sure I can fake it!

      I LOVE your examples. Looking at it, how CAN you tell the difference between humid and homosexual? The words in German, I mean. And the fun fair!

      Holy crap, lady, you should have a talk show. Or maybe a blog. Yes, a blog, that’s the ticket! Those would make an amazing start to a post for YOU for your ESL clients.

      I am going to be smiling about these all day. THANK YOU!!!!!

  3. Janka

    Hi, just read your flea-story. Great! Unfortunately I cannot share some examples of my own errors and mistakes, because I do not realize them… My english is not good enough 🙂
    I am talking anyway. Until now, nobody came and tried to stop me with beer or a Bratwurst or other threats…
    keep posting, I always enjoy your stories and the way you tell them!

    love the Mr.Perfection-Quote from Barbara Sher!

    • wendy

      Janka, Ignorance is bliss! I am blissful myself! At least we’re happy! You keep talking, girl!

      I have never heard of beer and bratwurst being used as a threat. Unless you threatened to take them AWAY from me. That would be a hardship.

      I am so happy you like my stories. I do enjoy sharing them. And thank YOU for memorializing that quote from Barbara Sher!


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