The Question I Always Ask as a Language Learner, and the Importance of Context
“¿Me entiendes?” (Do you understand me?) is one of the questions I have asked most frequently to Spanish-speakers around the globe. I really do wonder sometimes. I consider myself fluent in Spanish but I am not always able to use the same kind of nuanced language that I use in my first language, English. I sometimes wonder, with the more basic, sometimes incorrectly chosen, words that I use, if Spanish-speakers really understand the true meaning of what I am saying. Sometimes I think that I am not getting my point across but other times I think that maybe I am being overly direct and they understand me a bit too well…
On the one hand, I feel that English is the only language in which I can express my deepest emotions and opinions. If I try to explain complicated opinions in Spanish, they must appear rather elementary. In English I can be as vague or as detailed I want, and I can beat around the bush when I don’t have a firm opinion. I say things like, “well, I don’t necessarily agree with his opinion but I don’t think he’s a terrible guy” but in Spanish I might simply say, “I don’t agree”. So I feel that the listener does not necessarily know my true feelings toward the person, only that I disagree with him.
On the other hand, maybe I am “over-stood”. Maybe, by using basic phrases and without the ability to beat around the bush, my true opinions actually shine through. Following the example above, perhaps the listener understands that my only solid opinion is that I don’t agree with ‘his’ opinion. Maybe by being blunt and obvious, people learn the true me inside. Maybe they understand me even better than some English speakers…
I spoke about this issue with a Spanish friend of mine who said:
With these words, I realized that there are many layers to my question. There are questions of social context, people’s first impressions of me, the judgments they make before even speaking to me, the body language I use, and the words I learn in order to express myself. All of these factors, and many more, must have an impact on how people interpret me as a person, some of them regardless of the language I’m speaking in.
So I don’t think I’m ever going to figure out the answer to my question. Maybe I should test some of my English and Spanish friends to see who knows me the best. Until then, I will continue to wonder: Am I being misunderstood, or (mis) over- stood?