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The other language

Although I became a state-certified translator and interpreter for Spanish first, since I started out as a freelancer, I have been mainly working with English, for which I took the state exam as translator and interpreter a year later.

While I chose Spanish because I thought, ‘Everyone knows English, there are a ton of translators and interpreters for English out there already, I will have better chances at getting work for Spanish,’ reality turned out to be the exact opposite.

Now, not using a language much – especially when you only learned it later in life – naturally results in a certain loss of that language.

I tried to keep my Spanish up, reading books and such, but with the little work I got for any combination with Spanish, it wasn’t enough. I would have had to spend a considerable amount of time in Spain every year to stay at the same level, but that wasn’t an option for various reasons.

The result: My confidence in the language decreased considerably, which in turn led to me not advertising that language as much or even refusing offers, which led to using Spanish even less, which decreased my confidence in the language… you get the picture.

And really, I have had plenty of work with just English and German, so there has not been that much need to keep it up, either.

Every now and then I would think to myself, “Well, it would be nice if I had more opportunity to use my Spanish, after all, I specifically learned it, and it would be a pity to just forget it.” But then work and life happened, and I forgot about it again.

I have been getting the occasional job, mainly certified translations, including for the combination Spanish and English (since I’m sworn-in for both languages, I am allowed to do that), and sometimes a wedding to interpret, so it’s not like I have not been using it at all. I also vacationed in Spain a few times, so I got/had to use it then. But I didn’t feel like I was at the level I had been right after my exams.

Through the school where I teach translation and interpreting (for English), I got the chance to go to Madrid for a short week after Easter this year to look after some students who were doing a course at a partner school there.

I didn’t have to do a lot except be there in case of an emergency and bring them back home at the end of the week, so I had quite a bit of free time.

It was my first time in Madrid, so of course I did some touristy stuff, but I also wanted to make the most of being in Spain and use Spanish, so in addition to only speaking Spanish everywhere instead of resorting to English (which may or may not have worked in all situations), I booked a cooking class for tapas.

The class was a mixed pleasure, because the other five participants were all Americans who didn’t speak a lick of Spanish, so the class was mainly in English. I did immensely enjoy the cooking (and the eating) and being around Americans (who thought I was from the States, too…), but I also asked how things were called in Spanish and switched back and forth a bit throughout the four hours of the class. After all, I had booked a Spanish cooking class and wanted to at least have some opportunity to speak and hear Spanish in that context.

The very positive feedback I received from the cook about my language skills then encouraged me to book a guided tour through the Royal Opera House in Spanish (they also have English on offer). Although I was a bit nervous about it, it turned out I understood pretty much everything, even quite technical and theater-specific terms. And I asked a ton of questions, without thinking about it too much beforehand or even looking up words. You can imagine the boost to my confidence at being understood without problems.

The last evening in Madrid I spent with friends (who speak only Spanish) of one of my colleagues who is from there and who had suggested us getting together, and it was just fantastic. Not only did we hit it off immediately, language was not an issue at all. They took me on an impromptu tour through one particular barrio, including several pubs and tons of tapas, and by the end of the evening, I felt like one of the group – and had no qualms about using Spanish.

The week after, I had two interpreting jobs for Spanish, an appointment at the notary for a prenuptial agreement and the wedding of the same couple.

Before Madrid, I had been a little hesitant to accept the job, but knew I would get the pertinent documents beforehand, so it should be okay.

Now, after Madrid, I was totally relaxed about both appointments, and that of course helped, too. I didn’t even freak out when, during the wedding ceremony, the registrar suddenly deviated from the script she had sent me beforehand.

The best part was when the native Spanish-speakers of the wedding party afterwards complemented me on my Spanish.

I am of course well aware that I have to continue to use (primarily spoken) Spanish in order to stay at this level and to improve it. Which is why I have signed up for a three-part advanced training course on tenses in Spanish legal and business language, for example.

I do feel like something happened during that week in Madrid, though. Something seems to have clicked (back) into place better than before – and perhaps more permanently than before.

While I know that Spanish will never be at the same level as English for me, my confidence has certainly been buoyed, and I will make way more effort to boost that “other language” more in the future.

Picture by Oleksii Liskonih at

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