Real Language Stories: How to be fluent in vulnerability in a year
For Lexie Grace, learning Spanish meant learning to be vulnerable, too
Note from Elise
Being vulnerable is hard for me. I pride myself on being super self-sufficient. In my friend group, I’m not the one that asks for help, I’m the one who gives it. I didn’t want to be a burden to those around me. So even in difficult times, I preferred to isolate myself, crying alone until I fell asleep instead of just reaching out to someone.
That’s why I’m super grateful for language learning. When I started learning Spanish, I had no idea that I was also learning the language of vulnerability.
Spanish taught me to be vulnerable
“¿Cuál es la fruta más paciente?” I muttered to myself over and over in the back of an uber on my way to my Spanish ceramic class, trying to memorize another horrible Spanish dad joke I’d found online. It was a ceramics class in Spanish, for Spanish speakers. My Spanish was barely A1.
The joke was my lifeline. My safety blanket. Even though my best friend—the class instructor—told me my presence was wanted, I couldn’t help but think that I would be a bother to the class. But I thought if I had a joke maybe I could make a few friends, at the very least get everyone in the class to tolerate me. My other friend’s words from the night before echoed in my head: “Ceramics is hard already but trying to learn it in a foreign language is pretty impossible.”
I always wanted to learn Spanish. I would say in my day to day I am more of an island than a person who depends on community. In elementary school I learned to thrive on my own, often doing all the work for group projects myself. In college we learned how to work independently. At work I’ve always been praised for my ability to function without any support.
So it was no surprise that when I started learning Spanish on March 9, 2021, I started with resources like Pimsleur and Duolingo so that I didn’t need to interact with anyone .
Learning a language takes time — and accountability
I started learning Spanish because my mom and her boyfriend started to speak in Spanish with each other to hide secrets from me, and it became my mission to not be left out of dinner conversations.
When I complained about them wielding Spanish as a means to isolate me from the table, my mom’s boyfriend dared me “to learn it, if it made me uncomfortable”. And that lit a fire under me. I quickly looked to the internet for answers on how to get started.
At the end of month two my motivation had started to dwindle.
Learning a language is a process. It’s not quick and easy and because of that I found it less and less fun. I knew if I didn’t do something quick I would lose my momentum. I had already tried to learn Spanish many times before, and it always went the same way: I would get inspired for a week and then stop.
I wanted this time to be different. I searched for ways to regain my drive. Then I remembered watching a video on YouTube from Goal Guys titled “Everything I Wish I Knew About Achieving Goals” ( https://youtu.be/UUQVuw5iIqI ). In the video, he mentioned needing accountability.
As a people person, it made sense to me that I would need people to create the kind of contagious energy that could maintain my will to learn Spanish for the long haul. I needed people. I needed help. I needed to be vulnerable.
I was going to have to ask my friends who spoke Spanish to talk to me, to bear with me, to tolerate my mistakes. I needed to ask for help.
Getting out of my comfort zone
I was super nervous to ask. I composed a text and hit send to 4 friends and my aunt. 3 friends agreed and so did my aunt. My best friend, Kaylee, speaks Spanish and she was super down to help. Then the anxiety hit.
Lexie and her friend Kaylee during a Spanish video call session.
I felt like I was interrupting Kaylee’s day. Two months in and my Spanish was absolutely horrible. I sounded like a two-year-old with my babbling. Maybe even a highly developed one-year-old. But I really wanted this so I swallowed my pride.
I remember wondering: what are they getting out of this? I had always been the caretaker of my friends so it seemed weird to be the one needing help. It felt uncomfortable. I couldn’t shake the feeling that they would make fun of me.
Kaylee didn’t. She was warm and kind. She was actually super excited to help me, because I’ve always helped her and she felt like this was her opportunity to help me.
My aunt and my other friend did in fact make fun of my poor Spanish, though. My guy friend said I sounded like Peggy Hill from King of the Hill.
If you’re not familiar with the animated show, Peggy Hill claims to be fluent in Spanish, but her Spanish is really bad, and there are a few episodes where she mixes words and gets herself into some serious trouble.
I was a little annoyed, but he rallied around me and said if anyone can learn a language it’s me because of my focus.
Also I’m not going to lie, I am a person who’s fueled by the doubts of others. Vengeance was my gasoline.
So him calling me Peggy Hill made the month of June a breeze when I studied. My aunt teased me, but I found the time with her helpful so I kept calling her on the weekends.
Spanish showed me the positive side of vulnerability
The more I practiced with my friends the more I found out the upside of vulnerability.
I suddenly felt closer to all my friends who were helping me. It turned out showing my flaws allowed people in.
My aunt and I had not been super close, but from the weekly conversations I learned a lot about her. And I eventually learned that teasing was actually her love language. My friend who called me Peggy Hill said he was inspired to do stand-up comedy in Spanish because of me. He said if I could make a fool of myself, so could he. And I found myself knowing more details about my best friend Kaylee than I had ever thought possible.
It turned out being open to receive help allowed others to share their vulnerability with me.
Not only that, but my goal became their goal. One week I was actually thinking about quitting Spanish and then I received a text from a friend about practicing Spanish. And I thought “Now I must continue on!” My friends and aunt even started to look forward to helping me, too!!
Eventually, I scheduled a few iTalki classes and discovered I really enjoyed making weekly time for Spanish. I also enjoyed having teachers because they could explain things and correct me.
So when Kaylee told me about the Spanish ceramics class at the studio she teaches at, I wrote it down as a goal. It was 3 months away, but at the time I was still under the illusion that my Spanish would be flawless by then.
“Run towards the fear!”
Cut to 3 months later and my Spanish was still trash. The class was going to happen and, to my surprise, Kaylee was teaching it. I asked her for permission to take her class and she was thrilled.
But I was scared when I remembered the comment my other friend had made: “Ceramics is hard in English, and you want to take it in another language. It’s impossible.”.
All my life, I have had one motto: “Run towards the fear!” I never want fear to control me. I had heard immersion is always a good thing, and I wanted to learn. Despite my anxiety, I signed up for the class and made my friend promise not to talk to me in English no matter what.
Lexie and her friend Kaylee at the pottery studio. Kaylee taught a Spanish-language ceramics class that Lexie signed up for — and to which she came prepared with plenty of terrible Spanish dad jokes.
I planned as best I could. I had someone on Italki prep a lesson about different Spanish words that could come up in ceramics. I tried to memorize small talk questions, though I didn’t have enough time to learn the responses to the questions.
I knew how to ask “what’s your job?” but the only jobs I knew were firefighter, nurse, and screenwriter. So I wasn’t as prepared as I would have liked to be.
That’s why I armed myself with the one thing I have always armed myself with my whole life: jokes.
I looked up some corny dad jokes on the internet and tried to memorize them on my way to the class. I also practiced saying “Quieres eschuchar un chiste? (Want to listen to a joke?)” under my breath.
When I got to the class, my hands trembled and I couldn’t stop thinking about how my accent was… less than ideal. But — again moving towards the fear — I said hello to a few people. We went around the room introducing ourselves. For me, the simple act of introducing myself set my heart racing. I struggled to say “Me llamo,” a phrase that I definitely knew.
But everyone was so supportive. And as my friend started talking, it started to sound like the adults in Charlie Brown, indiscernible “Blah, blah, blah, blah”. The only good thing about taking an art class is even if I didn’t understand the words, it was all being demoed in front of my eyes.
Native speakers are scared of being judged, too
For the most part everyone in the class was actually very quiet. I forgot that taking any class is very vulnerable. While I was scared of looking stupid in Spanish, they were scared of talking in public.
Another motto I always use in my day to day life is “all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage” (from the trailer of We Bought a Zoo). This would be a good time for 20 seconds of insane courage. So I took a breath and recited what I had practiced: “Quieres escuchar un chiste?”
Now, looking back, I should have used the ustedes form because I wasn’t really talking to anyone specific.
But everyone responded “Sí!. They were just as hungry as I was for connection, and even if my Spanish wasn’t amazing, it broke the ice. I told my dad joke, people laughed, and conversations started to happen around the room.
There was a lot I didn’t understand, but I pushed forward knowing that tomorrow I will know a little more. While my Spanish wasn’t the best there is so much you can communicate with a smile and laugh. I made my first friends in Spanish in that class. I continue to make more and more friends because of Spanish, people that have changed my life and my world view for the better.
When I went to pick up my pots I was told my pots exploded which made me sad, but I figured I probably didn’t understand some basic instructions which caused them to blow up. I told Kaylee that the place couldn’t find my pots but she found them.
My pots definitely looked like they were made in a second language. They might be ugly but there was in fact a whole lot of love in them.
Lexie’s first pot from her Spanish pottery class — it might “look like it was made in another language,” but that was kind of the point!
Learning a language taught me that it’s okay to ask for help
Learning a language has made me realize it’s not bad to ask for help. Vulnerability actually makes your life richer.
So if you have ever wanted to learn a language, but were afraid to book a class, talk to a friend or have had a bad experience in the past and are afraid to start again: DO IT.
Make bad pots, make many mistakes, sound like Peggy Hill. You’ll build a community. Just don’t stop.
Paso a paso. (Step by Step) If they make fun of you, let them. When you reach your goal their opinions won’t matter.
My teacher taught me this expression: “Sin prisa, pero sin pausa” (Without hurry, but without pause). Language mastery isn’t a 3 month process, it’s a long game.
So just keep going and if you ever feel worried keep a dad joke in your back pocket. You never know who needs to hear it.
Imagine Rose of Golden Girls and Billy Wilder had a lovechild who was magically a Black Puerto Rican comedian. Lexie Grace is smiley, relentlessly optimistic, big-hearted, and funny as all h*ck.
Raised in Hollywood by a literal pack of wild female comedians (who always dropped her off at Catholic school on time) Lexie is used to being the odd one out: too Black for private school and too nerdy to not get beat up at Sunday School, Lexie has smiled through it all while making everyone else laugh along the way. She has also studied writing and directing at NYU, trained at Groundlings, Second City Hollywood, UCB, and just wrote a commercial for IKEA. Check out Lexie Grace’s comedy, and you’ll see why audiences everywhere are so enamored and entertained, they’re naming their babies after her (well that was one former stalker, but Lexie hopes to collect more namesakes as her career progresses.)
You can find Lexie on Twitter at @SpanishLexie for Spanish and @smilelexie for comedy, and at her website: www.SmileLexie.com
This post is the fourth in the “Real Language Stories'' series, which tells the real stories of how language learners of all stripes (and all levels) learned their first foreign languages. Have a story you’d like to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.