Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Yo entiendo! Yo entiendo!

A Czech proverb: You live a new life for every new language you speak. Now that I'm finally getting a handle on this business of learning Spanish, I couldn't agree more.
Cuso International really took a chance on me when they brought me to Honduras with what can only be described as seriously rudimentary Spanish skills. And for that I will always be in their debt. Of all the things I appreciate about this interesting new life, what I love the most is the worlds that are opening up to me because I'm learning another language.
It hasn't been easy. Despite being immersed in an all-Spanish environment for the last six months, I still need a Spanish-English dictionary close at hand at all times. I have to spend at least 10 minutes a day reading out loud from the San Pedro newspaper or a Spanish novel to sharpen my ear and my pronunciation. 
I still flip through the absolutely essential Barron's 501 Spanish Verbs daily, checking up on some of the trickier conjugations and sorting out the more idiosyncratic rules. I still make mistakes all the time when I speak. I don't understand everything that's being said to me, and group conversations continue to give me headaches.
But it's coming. I've learned a lot of new things in my lifetime and have always noticed that things start falling into place at the six-month mark. And I'm greatly relieved to discover that's true in language acquisition as well. 
Yesterday I managed a long conversation with a man I'd never met before (new people are always the biggest challenge, because everybody has their own way of speaking) that covered topics ranging from the kinds of vegetables they grow in Guatemala, why the water tastes funny there, the murder of some of his family members last year at the hands of a jealous ex, and the dangers of a prickly looking green caterpillar that fell from a tree overhead as we stood talking. 
Just to be chatting like that, with a guy who I would have struggled to exchange simple pleasantries with just a few months ago - that's a wonderful thing. I've been able to manage basic tourist-level queries in Spanish for a while now because of our travels in Mexico, but to be able to share the stories of people's daily lives changes everything about the travel experience.
The compulsory French I took in school probably helped to prepare my brain for learning a new language, and I know that my many years of studying music was good for that as well. I don't think I have a natural aptitude for new languages, however, and am pretty old to be trying to learn one. So consider me heartening proof that it can be done at any age.
I put in some serious study time in the three months before we left Canada and then a month in language school once we arrived. Still, I struggled to understand most of what my co-workers said to me for the first couple of months of my placement. 
I suspect I came across as a pleasant but possibly stupid new volunteer. I never knew what the heck was going on in the staff meetings, and routinely misunderstood what my co-workers at the Comision de Accion Social Menonita were trying to say to me. And how kind of them to keep straight faces when they learned I was there to help with communications. 
But now I've got a Spanish Facebook page going on for CASM. I can go out on field trips and talk to the people we work with. I can even talk to children, whose squeaky little voices and rapid cadence were like Martian-speak to me in the early weeks. I'm able to show my personality more, and no longer feel like the smiling, silent cypher sidelined from the office banter.
I still use Google Translate frequently, but now it's for checking my Spanish rather than translating my English. I still find myself going blank in the middle of a conversation as I grasp for a word that I just haven't learned yet, but am much better at quickly finding an alternate way to say the same thing. 
I would never suggest that I'm fluent yet, of course. But at least I now believe that day will come.

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