Tomorrow marks 2 months here in Nicaragua. Prior to leaving, my hope was that I would be fluent in Spanish at 2 months into my trip. I’ve discovered, though, that Spanish language, like anything else in life, presents the opportunity for constant learning. That is to say, there’s always more to know!
However, I am pleased with my rate of learning. I’m happy that I can understand the majority of a conversation when the speaker slows it down for me. I’ve even found that I can translate when a native Spanish speaker is speaking to an English speaker. (Again, speaking very slowly!)
This has been highlighted really clearly for me as my sister came to town about two weeks ago. She came with a very similar level of Spanish as I did. She’d been studying online, with books, and working with livemocha.com. Then she’d found herself simply too busy to devote much time to Spanish, despite the date looming for her trip to Nicaragua. Obviously we are sisters, as this is an exact description of the studying I did prior to my move. Also similar, though, is her rate of learning. Though she’s only been in town for two weeks, I’ve watched her comprehension rate soar as she understands more and more of the Spanish spoken around her. I’ve watched her conversational skills expand rapidly, and I’ve observed her frustration with the pace of her learning.
In this way, my sister is a mirror for my own educational experience with the Spanish language. From the outside in, it is easy for me to see the great strides that she’s making with her understanding of the language. She understands so much, in fact, that when I explained in Spanish to a friend that she is learning and understanding a lot but doesn’t believe she knows much Spanish, she was able to respond in English to argue that no, she’s not learning fast enough. Smile.
But when you’re looking from the inside out, trying to communicate and failing to find the word that you need to express yourself, or trying to listen but feeling the rapid pace of words wash over you like a wave, it’s easy to lose track of all you’ve learned and feel as if the language will never be clear to you. Sometimes it’s as if the Spanish language is a door with no key. A thick brick door with a rusty iron key hole that has spider webs growing inside, the key long forgotten under a bed or in a dusty attic. That thick door is only an illusion, is only maya thrown up to obscure a reality. The reality is that people have been living and learning different languages since the dawn of time. Long before there were books and language schools, people from different tribes were finding ways to coexist together for trading, for marrying, and for travel.
When two people want to communicate with each other, the communication will happen one way or another. Hand gestures, facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice tell so much of a story in and of themselves. How lucky am I that the Nicaraguanse speak like a bunch of Italians at a family dinner. Hands flying almost faster than the words pout out of their mouths. Past conversations and events are acted out to add flavor to the story — sometimes even to the point of the story teller jumping up from his seat to act out a particularly entertaining scene. This happens so regularly that I’ve begun to look at the way I relate events as quite boring, in need of a bit more pizzazz.
Truly, though, the Spanish language and culture are beginning to rub off on me. I continue to work hard and study the language — much easier to do with the motivation to communicate infusing almost every moment of every day. I also experiment a lot – trying out new vocabulary words, and getting them wrong at least as often as I get them right. I told my friend that the yucca he was cutting looked very arrow – flecha. The word I meant to say was flaca – thin – which is actually only applied to a person. The correct word there is fina – the yucca was cut very fine and thin. Interactions like that help me remember new words better, and help me remember the meaning of the words I got wrong as well.
Every day, I wake and find myself grateful for this opportunity. Walking down the street, I find it a mixed blessing that I understand more of the language. I can now understand the words that men mutter as I walk past, but I can also understand the words that vendors sing as they wind along the streets, large baskets of good balanced on their heads. I can understand what the abuela called to the young nino across the street, and that the man I just walked by called me hermanita – little sister – not anything worth cringing over.