Either Spanish people have very low standards, or they’re all lying to me.
Let me explain. Yesterday I went to my Spanish conversation class and left feeling incredibly stupid. Also minus 13€. Xacobe had spent the entire lesson correcting my pronunciation of certain vowels, as well as encouraging me to not f**k up the imperfect and preterite. That didn’t work so well, and my head hurt.
And then, a couple hours later, I met some Spanish girls for coffee. In the midst of our bilingual conversation, they repeated a refrain that I’ve heard many times since coming to Spain: “Oh your Spanish is so good!” Now, normally I accept the praise with a self-depreciating smile, because I know that my Spanish is not good, or at least not good enough for my (perfectionist) standards. However, I decided that they were lying to me. Or rather, telling the truth as they saw it. Bear with me, I think I can explain this.
See, language students have a skewed idea of what “good” is when it comes to speaking ability. And it’s completely contingent on one’s own skills. My new friends are struggling with basic English skills. They can’t form complete sentences without errors, and any kind of fluid conversation is a bit beyond them. They know just how difficult it is to learn a second language, and how bad they are at English. Therefore, the fact that I can hold an error-ridden conversation, know a lot of random vocabulary, and have a fairly decent accent (sometimes), makes me look amazing to them.
In contrast, to store clerks, bank tellers, and my landlady, my mistakes are annoying and my Spanish is obviously subpar. These people shouldn’t be telling me that my Spanish is very good. They don’t have the background in language study. They don’t have their bad English skills shoved in their faces on a day-to-day basis. However, they compliment me! Sometimes anyways. (I also get mocked by some bartenders)
If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s not a matter of low standards. It’s that the Spanish aren’t accustomed to foreigners speaking and understanding the language. Once it becomes apparent that I’m foreign, the standards change. It’s suddenly awesome that I know how to use more than one verb tense, that I know random acadmeic words and that I can understand the basic idea of a rapid-fire Castillian-Galician conversation.