From Fearing Mistakes to No Pasa Nada

Anna Králová

I am a perfectionist by nature, which often enables me to carry out various tasks of good quality, but at the same time prevents me from starting new things. The fear of not being good enough is sometimes so strong that I rather avoid aiming at any ambitious projects. However, learning some Spanish to survive an Erasmus stay in Spain seemed inevitable. I was, of course, aware of the fact that developing speaking skills takes much more time than mere understanding of some basics of a foreign language. This could have potentially stopped me from even trying to start with the self-study of Spanish, but I consciously chose to take on a different approach.

Unlike English, Spanish was not within my study field, thus I did not feel the need to score high to build my career. Instead, I decided to perceive learning the language as an experiment, something to do for fun. The strategy was simple: As long as I could get what I wanted in the shops, my attempts to communicate would be successful. Paradoxically, lowering my self-expectations helped me progress. Using the language with no filter on was the key. The more situations I managed to survive, the stronger I felt. After all, what worse could happen than not being understood by a stranger? However, thanks to this approach, I often found myself in rather bizarre situations.

One day, I went to a small fruit shop that was run by a family of Middle Eastern origin. Being the only customer there, I immediately caught the shop assistant’s attention. As there were no figs anywhere in the shelves, I went straight to the counter and asked the shop assistant confidently: Tiene hijos por favor? I believed I was asking for figs. Yes, figs, hijos, that was the Spanish word, wasn’t it? But the expression of the man did not agree with my persuasion. Yet, I repeated the question twice more, thinking it could help him puzzle my accent out. Nevertheless, the man kept staring at me in a strange way, shaking his head slowly from side to side, so I backed away from the shop in confusion. This experience made me jump to a simple, yet wrong conclusion – he must have been quite asocial or lazy to try hard to find out what his customer desired. Only two weeks later, I finally found out what problem the shop assistant had. Hijos are not higos. Minimal pairs, they would say in phonetic classes. Just a single phoneme changed the meaning dramatically. Instead of asking him for figs, I asked him three times whether he had sons! No wonder this man looked so dumbfounded. Well, no pasa nada!

No pasa nada is a Spanish phrase that became my magic spell. It has a wide range of usage, meaning something like ‘no big deal, don’t worry about it, nothing happened’. Anytime I was about to turn red because of some embarrassing experience, thinking of no pasa nada saved me. It has already happened, you cannot change it, so why bother? This attitude helped me overcome my shyness to speak Spanish with my strong Czech accent and non-existent grammar. It did not matter much what the people who heard me speaking thought. Even though my speech was objectively terrible and often incomprehensible, I knew I was progressing. I was soaking the language up like a sponge, I was living the language. Almost all my classmates from English classes were local Spaniards, so their WhatsApp group was naturally in Spanish. I could text there in English, but I never did that. Google Translate, Spanish Dict and other websites were my daily bread. 

Even though people in the streets were sometimes impatient with my slow spoken production, all in all, my attempts to communicate in Spanish were met with positive reactions. I could tell from the faces of strangers or my classmates they were pleased by the fact that I wanted to get closer to their culture. The more I tried, the more open they were. After few months, my Spanish was not about bare survival anymore, it was more about ‘being in’. I knew what food the local people loved, what songs were trending and what news from TV broadcasting served small talks. Despite being able to understand only a tiny fraction of their complex cultural features, I could already enjoy being a part of the community. 

From time to time, it occurred to me that I could feel a bit guilty for exhausting the people around me by my weak Spanish. Their contribution to my language and cultural awareness was invaluable and it felt as if I was not giving anything back. Later, however, I realized that this was not quite right. For some of my classmates, I was the first foreigner they interacted closely with. They were naturally unconfident about their speaking skills, and I felt great satisfaction out of giving them reassurance. Nonetheless, my finest moment of epiphany did not come with anyone I would meet regularly, but with a boy I saw only once. 

One night, I happened to have some drinks with classmates of my Spanish friend. She introduced me to them as a foreigner who studied English, and she wanted to hold the conversation in English. There was, however, a boy whom the others were constantly mocking for his failures in English classes. He was smiling shily at me from across the table but would not say a single word in English. I kept chatting with the others in English and they soon wanted to know what Spanish expressions I had learnt so far. That was an opportunity to let my clumsy Spanish shine! I was hoping my poor knowledge of the language would help the shy boy release the tension. Indeed, after a while, he looked at me in surprise and when I could not find the right word to finish my sentence, he attempted to help me in English. In the end, we were able to hold an English-Spanish conversation, trumping each other’s language ineptitude. 

They say people come to our lives for some reason. Some stay with us till the end, while others for just a very short time. A clumsy small talk with the shy boy in the bar equals the latter. Still, this experience left me with a powerful impression. That night, I realized how facing my imperfection can help someone else overcome their own insecurity. He could see I was not afraid of making a fool of myself by using present simple tense for all possible tenses and completely ignoring grammatical gender of Spanish nouns. My no pasa nada resulted in his I can try to speak English; she is not judging me.

Since I left Spain, I have been trying to maintain my no pasa nada attitude. Not only does it help one in learning a foreign language, but it also plays a useful role in dealing with daily situations. The outcomes of my self-study of Spanish still amaze me. This language journey started with Duolingo and has gotten me to a state when I can be less worried about things that are happening around me. It is probably impossible to stick to no pasa nada at all times, but I do not think about doubts and fears that sometimes get on my mind as a failure anymore. All in all, Erasmus left me calmer and braver. No pasa nada requires constant effort but is definitely worth it. I am already looking forward to buying figs next time I am in Spain. This time, I may ask for them correctly, but God knows what other faux pas will arise. Well, no pasa nada, that’s life!