Saturday, August 31, 2013

Solo en Español

Ten days ago, when I walked up to the airport terminal and couldn't understand a word the flight attendants were saying, I realized that nothing magical had happened in the year since I had last studied Spanish. I had not become fluent by vaguely hoping.

There are some with an enviable knack for languages. I’m not one of those people. It's taken me all week just to remember the word for "bubbles," and to converse at even the most basic level takes a sort of mental gymnastics that leaves my head aching.

I've always invested a great deal of effort into speaking and writing with elegance and clarity. In Spanish, I hope only for basic understanding. Speaking a little Spanish is like having an opaque window barely cracked open. You can see that something's outside, but the glimpse isn't enough to fully appreciate what's out there. Here, I feel like only a crack of my personality shows through, and less than a crack of my intelligence. It’s hard not being able to understand the subtleties of language that make up the hundred little jokes that make up a day.

My first day with my new family, words poured out of me in Spanish, almost-Spanish, and They-have-no-idea-what-you're-trying-to-say. On the one hand, I was thrilled that I could communicate in another language; on the other, I hated how limited that communication was. For example, I may say something like,

“The news! I know this thing on top of the news... Inside the news. I learn about this in my class. It is…bad.”

My Mamá doesn’t speak a word of English, so if I want to ask her what something is, I need to either play a game of charades or figure out how else to describe it, which can lead to elegant sentences like, “What is the name of the chicken who is a man, he says the sounds in the morning?" [10 points if you know what I meant]

I’m exciting to be learning, but I'm always tired. When I journal, I'll write in a Dora-the-Explorer style Spanglish. Sometimes I lose words in both languages.Most of my studies before were based on grammar tests and reading, so understanding is really hard for me. When people speak slowly and clearly, and let me ask lots of questions, I can pick up a lot. Just when I think I’m doing well, though, my family will carry on a conversation and I won’t pick up a single word.

I've been an ESL teacher on-and-off for two years, but this one week in Honduras has given me more sympathy towards language learners than anything else. I realize now how much education and effort it takes just to be barely conversant. I realize that though people seem funnier, smarter, and more complex in their heart language; they're the same person no matter how they speak. Sometimes it just takes patience to let the real person show through.

So start a conversation on the bus. Have the patience to speak slowly and clearly, and to repeat yourself. There are thousands of people around you who are living in a world they have to translate, and they may need someone to tell them they're doing better than they think.

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