Friday, February 03, 2012

But what if I never understand this language??

La ViaVia, Copan Ruinas. Great place to drink!

I met my new boss on Wednesday. He doesn’t speak any English. Yikes.
I believe I have the heart for the work I’m about to do in Honduras, which involves helping a very good Mennonite organization do its very good work. But what I don’t have is the language skills.
That fact hit home with a whump Wednesday as I sat in my new workplace, straining to understand what the heck the kind-faced man who heads up Copan’s Comision de Social Accion Menonita was telling me.
My Spanish has improved significantly in the past four months, thanks to private lessons, many hours of devoted study, and more immediately a 20-hour-a-week immersion in Spanish at the Ixbalanque Language School here in Copan. But comprehending the spoken language - especially at the speed it’s spoken around these parts - remains a major challenge.
That’s natural, I’m told. But let me tell you, “natural” is of little comfort when you’ve got a scant two weeks before starting your new job in a workplace that’s all Spanish, all the time. More alarming still, the work of CASM involves the issues of human development, rights, gender equity, poverty - fascinating and important stuff, but not exactly easy subjects to talk about when your language skills are maybe (maybe) at a Grade 3 or 4 level.
Spanish is a beautiful language, and it’s a total thrill for me to find myself able now to have some conversations with people about their lives, their country, their culture. I’ve been able to conduct halting exchanges in markets, banks and the like for about 10 years now after much travel in Mexico and a year or so of lessons some time ago, but the inner journalist in me has longed to be able to engage in more meaningful conversation. It’s all well and good to be able to ask how much the avocados cost or whether there’s a bathroom nearby, but what I really want when travelling is to talk to people about what their lives are like, how their school and health-care systems work,  how their governments function and their countries survive.
Unfortunately, there’s no simple way to get to that point. Big Pharma has yet to come up with a language-acquisition pill (but damn it, sign me up when they do). Having accepted this Cuso International placement in Honduras, I want to be fluent in Spanish RIGHT NOW, but the truth is that all I can do is keep studying, keep talking, keep straining to understand those rapid-fire Spanish conversations all around me while the learning process inches along at a much too stately pace.
Me parece it will be a tough slog. But my boss gave me an encouraging smile after our talk, and told me that I seemed to comprehend quite a bit. If only he knew that we journalists are schooled at looking fully engaged even while our baffled brains are saying What? What? (or in this case, Que? Que?)
At least I won’t be like the California guy we met today, eight years in Honduras and not a word of Spanish to show for it. He’s still doing this crazy mime thing to try to communicate with people. Me, I want to use my words. 

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