Language Lessons

My sister Anita writes me from Mexico about her struggle to learn Spanish.  “Sobering to see how much more naturally focused I am on what I say than that of others,” while her husband is much more adept at conversation.  Her conclusion: “…listening, the superior operative.  Learning Spanish with my husband and the reflection is, I’m ready to talk, he’s ready to listen.”  This is a sister-similarity between Anita and me.  You would think that self-awareness and a desire to change would in fact result in some behavioral shift, but, no, I’m still too much a talker.  In one way, Anita’s really lucky.  She cannot speak with the ease I can, at home with my native tongue.

I moved to Cali, Colombia to begin my teaching career, but I was 26, not 64.  Even with  relative youth on my side, I had studied only French and Latin in high school and college, and knew ni una palabra de espanol.  My ignorance, my naiveté emboldened me.  I didn’t know how difficult it would be, how many fumbling, frustrated attempts at communicating were in front of me, how many times I’d sit on a bus, surrounded by native Spanish speakers and imagine that they were discussing me, the green-eyed gringa.  As I told my sister, the word “No” is the same in both languages, something I greatly appreciated.  Granted, I became adept at “Si” as well, but only after time had made what was once a jumble of syllables somewhat discernible.

What this initial language disadvantage spawned was twofold.  First, I became a teacher who believed in active learning!  My second grade students were as ill-prepared for immersion in English instruction as I was in Spanish.  We learned together.  Math, my nemesis, became the one academic subject where we all spoke the same language, at least to a degree.  When tears threatened—on either side of this collaboration—we headed outside for a game of futbol or statues or any other release.  Out in the sunshine, in the basin of mountains, we shed our insecurities and grew together in laughter.  When chaos threatened, we sang…often.  We stood up and acted out verbs.  We talked with each other.  We spent much of our day translating, sorting through confusion.  I remember riding home one Friday afternoon thinking, “I can’t do this for the rest of my life.  It’s too hard.”

By the end of the year, however, we had taught each other, and I had decided to do it again.  Granted I flew to Miami and spent the summer taking Spanish classes at Florida International University, putting a foundation beneath what I’d gleaned on the job.  No other year of the four I’d spend in Cali held either the obstacles or the enduring classroom experience than that first.

The second outcome endures as well.  I admire anyone who speaks more than one language, who stumbles to communicate, who faces daily language challenges.  I’d like to think that I’m less of an “ugly American.”  That expression, “Why can’t they just speak English?” smacks of a quality I eschew.  I have experienced language frustration from the other side; I hope it’s made me kinder.  I think about how I felt having lofty ideas, and well-reasoned opinions, but for want of verbiage, they circled inside my mind, trapped.

My sister’s husband gets to the heart of it: communication is about listening—about more than words.


6 thoughts on “Language Lessons”

  1. Your piece on the struggles of a first year learning resonated with me. While I’m in my first year in a new environment, faced with many challenges, it’s not the language that’s the barrier, but the behavior and lack of perseverance in my new urban setting. You give me hope that next year will be easier, this one has been so very challenging. I love your closing: “communication is about listening—about more than words.” Wise words I need to keep centered on during this journey.

    1. I visited your blog and while I see posts from last year…just read your “Finale” poem—so much truth there—I don’t see anything for this year. Are you participating? I try to reciprocate!

  2. As someone living in another country, where I don’t yet speak the language, I can totally agree with this. Once you’ve experienced it, you become much more empathetic!

  3. Long ago I experienced immersion in another language and culture when I lived in France for 9 months. I had been an excellent student of French in high school, but when I arrived in France I didn’t understand much of what was going on. In those days, when learning a language, you neither spoke it nor listened to it. After three months, however, all that preparation kicked in and I was much happier. So, yes, I can empathize with those who struggle with learning a new language. It’s hard work and often a painful experience. So, brava!

  4. I too have lived abroad and the inability to communicate is so difficult. I remember when I was staying with my host family in Costa Rica, and they were having a political conversation that I couldn’t participate in, but I could understand what they were saying! I felt like I had cracked a secret code. It’s very cool that you taught abroad for so many years, and a comment by your sister-in-law brought all of these memories back.

  5. While I have not learned a second language, I don’t count high school Spanish, I do envy those that have. It takes a lot of practice and authentic experiences to learn. What an amazing opportunity for you to learn Spanish from them as they learn English from you.

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