Why getting out of your language comfort zone is both crucial and fun

How my life changed after two months working at a Mexican restaurant

“¿Eres mexicana?” This is the question I got asked the most this summer. Not “Where are you going to college?” “What’s your major?” or even “How are you doing today?” but “Are you Mexican?”

The answer that I usually gave was “No. I’m white. What can I get for you to eat tonight?”

Let me explain. After I got out of school for the summer, the first thing on my mind was finding a job. I had no work experience, and I could only work for two months before I would go off to college, so I wasn’t sure I would find anything at all. Call it fate, or extreme luck– but the first place that I stopped at, a small Mexican restaurant near my house, desperately needed waitresses. I spoke okay Spanish, and so they told me they’d consider hiring me. Ten minutes later, they called me back asking if I could come in to work the next day. What followed was the craziest summer of my life.  

Immediately, I was nervous. What would customers think when they saw a white girl working in a restaurant where the proprietors and most of the customers spoke mainly Spanish? Sometimes, before I could even ask what they would like to drink, a customer would ask me curiously, “¿Eres mexicana? Are you Mexican?”

Here’s why going out of your language comfort zone is absolutely worth it.

At first, it’s exhausting. At Los Sarapes, I worked six hours a day, five or six days a week, and I spent a big chunk of the rest of the time telling my family about how tiring speaking in Spanish was for me. I love languages, and Spanish is a gorgeous language, but after struggling through the dinner shift with my mediocre Spanish, transitioning back to English was like taking a breath of fresh air. Here’s the kicker though: I only did this for two months. If you’re an international student studying at Vanderbilt or if English just isn’t the language you’re most fluent in, you go through this every single day.

English is the only language my parents can speak; I was born and raised speaking English. So I don’t often have experiences where I’m at a disadvantage lingually. While my job this summer was minor in comparison to the difficulty of living in another country, I certainly have a greater appreciation for the hard work that it takes to live in another language.

Second, it’s humbling. I’d taken Spanish in school for five years, but there’s certainly nothing like full immersion in a situation that matters to make you realize how little you actually know. I made a lot of mistakes. But, as we’re constantly reminded, isn’t that the best way to learn? I think two months of working with customers taught me more about using language than a whole year in my high school Spanish classroom. And people are gracious– they want to help you, especially if they know you’re trying hard.

This kind of experience also gives you a tangible awareness of language. Now this sounds very abstract, but what I mean is something like this: Most of the time we speak on auto-pilot–we have to think about the content of our speech and sometimes the particular details of how we want to express this content (i.e. choosing words tactfully for effect), but we don’t have to think about how to correctly conjugate “to run” or how to make the word “watermelon” plural. However, if you’re out of your native language, you can no longer do this as naturally. Struggling to find the right words or the right expression suddenly makes you realize how complicated language is, how full of quirks and idiomatic expressions it is. This can happen, to some extent, in the classroom, but it’s incomparable to the experience of spending hours each day trying to express meaning in another language. For me, it made words unexpectedly tangible; they were like blocks or puzzle pieces that I had to find and figure out how to put together.

And I have to confess that I didn’t always succeed. Sometimes, the other waitresses and I pieced it together with a mix of English and Spanish to communicate. Every once and awhile, I totally failed and I’d look desperately towards another waitress for help. But the times when I succeeded were worth it, because, even in the rough moments…

It is so much fun! In my psychology course about language, we’re talking about the unique system of communication that humans have–something no other animal (as far as we can tell) has developed. Language, I’d argue, is one of the most important things that makes us human, and so experiencing language in a new way like this brings you right to the roots of who we really are. There’s a specific kind of joy that comes when you’re able to get meaning across, when you understand somebody well, even if it’s just knowing what kind of burrito they actually want.

In light of recent political events, including the phasing out of the executive order DACA, this kind of experience is even more crucial. No matter your race, religion, background, gender, or sexual orientation, how can we understand each other if we don’t spend time out of our comfort zones, purposely trying to communicate across boundaries like language? This can be serious business, often exhausting and humbling, but just as often, it’s also eye-opening and a lot of fun.