“I have already lost my meal,” I say as the waitress walks up to the table. I don’t realize what I’ve said until she looks at me a little funny. Of course, I really meant to say, “I have already ordered my meal,” but the Spanish verbs for ‘to lose’ (perder) and for ‘to ask for, or, to order’ (pedir) are too close in my head, and I constantly mix them up. If you’ve spent any amount of time trying to communicate in another language, you’ve certainly had moments of enlightenment where you realize exactly how silly you probably just sounded.
I’ve been studying Spanish off and on for most of my life. My mom had the foresight to put me in bilingual classes starting when I was 5 years old. Growing up in California in the 70’s, bilingual public classes were quite common. While I never became fully literate in Spanish, I learned enough to communicate with my classmates and get the general gist of most conversations in Spanish. But I’ve certainly had my share of moments where I simply couldn’t find the words to express myself in the past 6 months.
That’s, in part, one of the many reasons I wanted to come to Ecuador. I wanted a chance to finally become literate in Spanish and put it to good use. The advantage of learning at such a young age is that I can pick up new things fairly quickly, and I can roll my r’s and make it sound like I know what I’m saying – until I mess up my verb conjugations.
When I first arrived in Ecuador, my ability to pronounce words correctly actually got me into trouble. I can whip out very short conversation without errors, and people would say ‘Oh, your Spanish is very good!’ Then they would inevitably speak so fast I’d feel like I’d just been left behind on the freeway. Fortunately, after 6 months here, I can generally keep up with the conversation – even if I’m trailing a bit behind.
I’ve had people back home say to me: ‘Oh – you must be fluent by now!’ I don’t know exactly what it means to be fluent in a language that’s not your own. I suspect it means you don’t have to translate in your head – or search for the right way to express yourself. If that’s the case, I have a LONG way to go. Sure, I get by well enough. People seem to know what I’m saying. But I most certainly have to think about it.
I get the sense there are very distinct stages when it comes to learning another language. At first, you advance rapidly – learning lots of new words and grammatical structures. I don’t clearly remember this stage in learning Spanish, but I’ve been through it with German and French. Then, at some point, when you’ve mastered basic communication, you spend a long time on a plateau where you speak well enough to get by, and people don’t feel the need to try to guess what you’re saying (still not there with German or French!). But it’s hard to jump to the next level. You don’t always know when that happens. For me, I realized I had made some progress at a few key moments in the past 6 months:
- There was the day I found myself responding in English to someone speaking to me in Spanish. Why? I no longer had to translate what they were saying to me (and so I forgot to translate my response).
- There was the day I realized I could follow a conversation between other people, and that I could be in a large group and follow the gist of the conversation and even contribute to conversation.
- There was the moment when I found some of my thoughts (simple ones!) coming in Spanish before they would come in English.
I still have issues comprehending when people talk too fast or don’t pronounce their words clearly. There are still many words I don’t know. But many of those I can get from context, or from the general sentiment, if not the precise word. And, of course, I still have difficulty conjugating verbs rapidly! If I take the time to speak slowly, everything seems to come out ok. If I rush too much, things get garbled.
What has this experience in Ecuador taught me about communicating, in general, in another language?
- First impressions are important. In a store or restaurant, if I mess up my first few words to someone, they immediately assume I know no Spanish, and start trying to use sign language, or just start trying to speak English. Sometimes they speak louder to me, like I can’t hear. Oddly, that helps me if they’re not pronouncing very clearly. But overall, I feel a bit stupid when this happens.
- It’s easy to give the impression you aren’t to clever when you use a lot of single-syllable words and you speak entirely in one tense. Think about it. Have you ever assumed a non-native English speaker was a bit naive or perhaps not so clever because they can’t express themselves clearly? Be honest with yourself. Now put themselves in your shoes. It’s hard to know how much a person really knows when they have difficulty expressing themselves fully. Especially in my first few months in Ecuador, I felt I had to hold back a great deal of my personality – just because I couldn’t find the right words to express myself.
- I’ve learned that many expressions, when translated directly, would sound really odd in English – and many of our own expressions sound really odd, or have no translation, in Spanish. The word ‘cheesy‘ for example, translates to ‘mal gusto‘ or ‘bad taste‘. Sure, the expressions are similar, but they don’t have quite the same meaning. Another example – here in Ecuador, maybe other Spanish speaking countries as well, the expression for giving birth is ‘dar la luz‘ or ‘to give the light‘. No one actually uses the Spanish words for birth or labor. You can imagine the confusion I felt at first when I heard people talking about ‘giving the light.’ Oh, by the way, I love the Spanish word for those of us from the USA: ‘estadounidense‘ – finally, in another language, I have found a word that precisely expresses where I am from! I propose we start using the word ‘UnitedStatesian‘ in English.
- I’ve learned that body language makes people think you understand better than you do. An ‘ah, si!’ or ‘claro!’ and a nod goes a long way. This may be why many gringo expats here think everyone speaks English – because many people here speak enough to get the drift of what you’re saying and follow it up with a nod and an ‘ok’. But I wouldn’t count on them understanding everything you’re trying to communicate. For example, jokes across the language barrier are difficult. I certainly have a hard time following jokes in Spanish – unless they’re told by a 12-year-old.
- Until you can pick up on some local slang, it’s hard to fully follow conversations. Here in Ecuador, I learned early on that everyone calls babies ‘wawas‘, not ‘bebes‘. Women are often ‘wambras‘ (although, the regular Spanish word ‘mujeres’ is common). And when you want to say it’s cold, an ‘Ah-cha-chaiiiiii!‘ works quite well, especially if you say it with a shiver. These are all Quichua (indigenous) expressions that have worked their way into the popular lingo.
- Semantics cause a great deal of problems in the world. Ultimately, I think our views of the world, and of life in general, are greatly affected by how we tell our stories. Many of our cultural differences stem from how we talk about ourselves. I think you can really only begin to delve into another culture if you take the time to delve into the language. Even within a single language, there are great differences in expression (look at the difference between British and US English). Given that the US is supposed to be the melting pot of cultures in this world, it’s sad that a majority of people there only speak English. (And, by the way, English is not the official language in the US, although most people speak it. There is no official language in the United States, just as there is no official religion.)
- Ultimately, no matter what language people speak, everyone is trying to tell the same story. There are tragedies and joys, needs and desires – people are trying to express hope and despair, faith and forgiveness. At the heart of every language are the same core beliefs and ideas that make us human. That gives me hope that whatever cultural or language barriers we encounter can be surmounted with a little time and patience – between the cultures of different countries, and between the cultures that exist within a single country (yeah, I’m looking at you, USA).