My thoughts are racing, my eyes blur, as if I’m looking at the world through the bottom of a milk bottle. My breathing shortens and all peripheral sound is muffled. Beads of sweat are pouring down my back, down my face. I feel as though I am under water, but I’m not. I’m here, but not really. Given how regular my panic attacks have become this year, I should be used to this feeling by now, but I’m not. I’m certain I’m about to die.
Hablame en español, my brother says quickly. ¿Cómo te llamas?
I stare at him blankly, suddenly aware of how incongruous his use of Spanish sounds — here, on this street in England, both of us English speakers, both of us drunk on the tail end of a night out.
“What?” I shoot back.
Erm. Estoy en Inglaterra.
Muy bien. ¿Y qué es eso? he says, pointing at a statue.
Es una estatua.
It goes on like this until I realise I’m no longer panicking. My brother’s impromptu switch to Spanish has had the desired effect. I am back in my body. I am breathing properly again, and the panic has subsided.
I began learning languages at the age of five, when my parents sent me to an after-school French class at my primary school. My parents are both English, but speaking different languages was always a priority in my house — everyone spoke at least one foreign tongue, even my grandfather. I don’t remember much from those early classes, aside from chanting different colours and days of the week over and over like incantations, but I do know that it was during these moments that I first discovered the joy of journeying away from your surroundings with words. Because in French class it was easy to imagine we were somewhere else, away — far away — from the present, which was a very appealing idea to a young child with a vivid imagination who relished escapism in all its forms.
I stuck with French as I grew up; it was one of those solid, steady relationships that provides stability, but not much actual excitement. It wasn’t until I began learning Spanish at age 11 that I experienced a more transformative relationship with languages.
I was obsessed. Looking back, it strikes me that Spanish, for me, was always about emotion; at the beginning the focus was on learning words and grammar to describe how I was feeling, but I somehow ended up with a language that helped me express myself better than my mother tongue.
After a decade of studying Spanish at school and uni, and living in Spain and then Paraguay, my proficiency came to match, and perhaps even exceed, my English. Despite having returned to the U.K. ten years ago now, I still often find myself stuck in English conversations, unable to convey a thought or feeling with quite the same depth or colour as I would be able to in Spanish. Somehow, in Spanish, I am able to express my inside more accurately on the outside.
Spanish affords me another kind of energy and vibrancy — call it chemistry. It is such an emotive and lyrical language, full of melodrama, which appeals to my character. I’m not just “in love,” but me muero de amor. To me, te echo de menos houses more feeling than “I miss you,” and tirándole onda a alguien has always felt to me more compelling than “flirting with someone”. All of these take me back to a time in my life that I delight in remembering.
My mental health took a drastic downward turn in my late twenties. I was back in the U.K. and speaking less Spanish as a result. These two things were mostly unrelated, aside from the fact that the latter was — unbeknownst to me at the time — an act of self-care, of which the former indicated I was in dire need. Unable to quiet the freneticism of my mind after experiencing trauma and, trapped in a loop of anxious thought, I was eventually diagnosed with a type of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) known as Pure O, whereby the rituals are mainly mental in nature. When my OCD flares up, panic attacks become frequent — sometimes arriving in multiple waves a day as I struggle to regain control of my own thoughts.
Breaking the cycle of repetitive thoughts on a good day is impossibly hard. On a bad day, it’s simply not possible. It’s like a form of extreme multitasking; no matter what I am actually doing, my mind can be simultaneously elsewhere, scrutinising something or revisiting an incident in the past that may rationally appear to be inconsequential. This is precisely what makes recovering from dips so tricky. It is nearly impossible to find a task that engrosses me enough to stop my brain from percolating over something unrelated at the same time.
But one day shortly after my diagnosis — after a few brief spells off work — I bumped into a Colombian friend at a supermarket on my lunch break. We stopped and chatted for a while as we waited in the queue to pay. When I walked away, I realised something profound. The whole time I was talking to him, I had been so engaged, I hadn’t been able to think — or, crucially, worry — about anything else.
What a revelation! Was this why I had been such a language junkie all these years? It certainly explained a thing or two. Like how obsessively I seek out Spanish speakers in the hopes that I can switch languages, or how noticeably happy I feel and appear to others when communicating en español. After twenty-plus years since my first lesson, my fluency in Spanish isn’t far off my English, and I feel as relaxed in one as I do in the other. Obviously, living in the U.K. has meant I have fewer opportunities to practise, so like with anything, my fluency ebbs and flows. But I usually find that a few minutes in, when I start to relax, all the words and phrases come flooding back with ease. I hope it will always be this way.
As soon as I discovered the link between speaking Spanish and mental stillness, it took on the proportions of a superpower. I was able to use it as a way of interrupting, and diverting, particularly pernicious thought spirals. It’s a form of support I’ve enlisted many times over the years, either in points of crisis or when I simply want a break from the intense pace of my thoughts.
If another Spanish speaker isn’t within reach, I will listen to a song in English and translate it in my head as I go. To anyone else, that probably sounds stressful, but for me, it has the opposite effect.
While living alone last year during the U.K.’s first Coronavirus lockdown, I started watching movies in Spanish to keep my mind pleasantly occupied. As an almost life-long reggaeton obsessive, I also spent most of the first lockdown painting the walls of my flat to the soundtrack of my “Latina” playlist, which is by now almost 11 hours long, or listening to the audio version of my favourite book, La Casa de los Espíritus by Isabel Allende. The world may have been collapsing around me, but these coping mechanisms helped me keep my anxiety at a manageable level and prevented me from spiraling into crisis.
It’s easy to list the most obvious benefits of learning languages. You’ll be able to communicate when travelling abroad, and you’ll expand your social network. But, at a time in history when I’m unlikely to be doing either of those things for a while, it’s the impact on my mental health that I value most — of having a hobby that inspires my imagination and delivers respite from life’s stresses. For me, Spanish has always been about feeling good more than anything else. And really…¿qué más hay?
This article is part of a series commissioned and paid for by Babbel, but it represents the journalist’s views. It was edited by Michelle No and Steph Koyfman.