Language Lessons

October 21, 2009

 La clase The last two posts might have left the impression that I stepped off the airplane in Guatemala City and began leading focus groups in customs. This is not true. Because, of course, researching bilingual education requires language skills. My Spanish is solid, reliable, but I wouldn’t take it home to meet the parents. It goes without saying that with the exception of three Nahuatl words I learned in Mexico (tashkal- tortilla, tasokamatik- thanks, semi’huilik- the tortillas are delicious), I do not speak any indigenous languages.

  I am sure some of you are like my lovely former roommate R, who speaks five languages fluently and managed to attend Latin American Student Organization meetings without anyone suspecting that she is not, in fact, Argentinean. Props. Unfortunately, I am not so talented, and I grew up in Indiana. In my home state, we speak one and a half languages, American and a dialect known as Hoosier, and our school boards do not believe that foreign language instruction should begin before the age of 12. Consequently, during my prime language-learning years I attended a few after school French classes, where I learned to count to ten and ate a lot of éclairs.

  Not content to accept my fate, I have spent half my life struggling to speak Spanish with fluency. I will spare you the story of how my initial enthusiasm drifted in the doldrums of high school, was revived by Gael Garcia Bernal’s turn as Che in The Motorcycle Diaries, and tested in college literature classes for which I was highly unqualified. Instead, I will open in the summer of 2007, when I set off on the Great Leftist Adventure known as Mexico.

 I had spent ten days in Spain the month before, where several waiters, store keepers, and a few fellow train passengers told me that I spoke Spanish well. Naively, I assumed that once I arrived in Mexico, hitherto unseen Spanish knowledge acquired through years of AP test prep would somehow spring from my mouth.  

Language Learning Lesson Number One: When you are a woman traveling alone and male waiters tell you that you speak a language well, you should not be fooled into believing that this is, in fact, true.

 Suffice it to say that my tongue did not prove to be fertile ground for the Spanish language. I realized that I was in for the long haul when, on my first morning, I tried to share my thoughts about the British school system at the breakfast table. After I finished, everyone smiled vaguely and looked down at their cereal bowls. They hadn’t understood anything that I had said.

Language Learning Lesson Number Two: Learning to speak a foreign language is a profoundly humbling experience, and it requires total fearlessness and complete determination. Not to mention a good sense of humor.

  The realization that I had overestimated my Spanish skills was a huge shock, and it made my first days in Mexico much more difficult than I had anticipated. In part, this realization was a necessary corrective to my arrogance. Early childhood educators spend years developing literacy skills: why did I assume I could make eight years of progress in seven weeks? This assumption is clearly rooted in the culture of elite American universities, where students are afraid to embarrass themselves in the classroom and attempt to create the illusion of effortless brilliance. Initially, I was terrified of making public mistakes, but eventually I realized that they were both inevitable and educational. Speaking Spanish day in, day out (with the exception of midnight tooth-brushing sessions with my dear friend L) continued to be terribly difficult. But over the course of the summer I finally acquired what I had lacked: an intuitive understanding of the structure and rhythm of Spanish. I spent the last few days alone in Mexico City, and on my final morning a family stopped me to ask for directions. I knew where they wanted to go, and I answered in perfect, fluent Spanish. To this day, it remains the crowning moment of my Spanish-speaking career.

Language Learning Lesson Number Three: Celebrate small victories.

 After I graduated in May and started to process the fact that I was about to be paid to move to Central America, I realized that I was most alarmed by the prospect of trying to navigate the Global South without being fluent. I knew that I was about to step out of my comfort zone in a big way, and so I made a very good decision: I decided to spend my first four weeks in language school. After all, school is the place where I feel most at home.

  Two weeks in, I’m very, very glad I decided not to start conducting focus groups in customs. Instead, I’m in Quetzaltenango (Xela), the second largest city and a hub for language schools like mine – Centro Maya, There are dozens of language schools in Xela, but I picked Centro Maya because it funds a scholarship program for indigenous women, offers indigenous language courses, and promises to pay its teachers a living wage. (Mexico cured me of Great Leftist Adventures, but I’m still a sucker for cooperatives.)


  In Xela, I live with a host family: a grandmother, her daughter and her husband, and a beautiful one-year old girl. There’s also a Guatemalan university student who rents a room in the house, and this morning I woke up to the sound of him singing Spanish pop music in the shower.

Language Learning Lesson Number Four: Children and awkward boys help break the ice when adult language skills fail.

Living with a host family forces me to speak Spanish every day, and I’m learning a lot about how middle class Guatemalans live. (For example, did you know that 40 percent of Guatemalans are evangelical Christians? I didn’t until I moved in last Sunday, just after my family had returned from church.)  They also feed me tasty tamales (see picture below in “Under the Ten.”)

 Between 8 AM and 1 PM, I’m at school. I study Quiche – the local indigenous language- once a week, but Spanish keeps me plenty busy. I’m the only student, so my teacher, Pedro, and I start every day by talking in Spanish for an hour or two. After a mid-morning walk to the bakery for bread, we launch into hardcore grammar drills. It’s like high school Spanish, except this time I actually remember what I’m learning. Most importantly, every day I feel a little more confident and prepared to start work on my project in November.

To my complete surprise, I’m enjoying myself.

 This is not to say that speaking Spanish is easy. But this time around I recognize why it’s really hard, and it’s not because speaking a foreign language requires regular public humiliation. I have a theory that gifted language learners are capable of totally reinventing themselves when necessary: learning a language is like acting a part in a play. But my sense of subject-hood is largely derived from 19th century British novels, which means I experience the loss of English as a loss of self. I don’t know how to make small talk, to explain my politics, or to talk about how and why we feel the way we do. For me, Spanish is difficult because speaking it requires that I rethink the way my sentences are structured, reconsider the images I employ, and learn to listen to new rhythms. It requires, on some level, that I re-imagine myself. I love the elegance of Spanish, and I love the messy beauty of Latin America, and I want to belong here in some small way. But there are days when I feel like a Jane Austen heroine who somehow got lost on the way to Bath.

Language Learning Lesson Number Five: Learning a language is painful, hilarious, and joyful all at once.

It is painful because it makes even the smallest interactions- talking to a taxi driver, making a telephone call- difficult. It is hilarious because it allows you to re-experience being five, when you shared very short sentences very enthusiastically, with much waving of your arms and self-deprecating laughter. It is joyful because there are magical moments of recognition when a passage in novel suddenly acquires meaning, when the first word that comes to mind is not English, or when you give good directions.

* Eventually I plan to post twice a week, but until things get going in November I’m going to do one photo post and one essay post a week. So check back next Monday for more!







2 Responses to “Language Lessons”

  1. Rickie said

    Hey there beautiful,

    I know exactly how you feel about the sense of losing your identity when you are struggling in another language. I constantly find myself wanting to jump into a conversation, wishing I had gotten that joke, or feeling like nobody understood the question I just asked. I am having the hardest time at work because nobody is taking me seriously. Because I can’t understand the urban planning talk (since it’s in German and involves a lot of technical vocabulary and complex phrasing that keeps tripping me up), they assume I am not able to work on challenging projects and keep giving me administrative work to do. In fact I was just asked to organize the corporate gifts for a conference with our partner region in Northern Virginia… that’s my job: ordering keychains and umbrellas online that are customized with our logo. It’s depressing, not to mention demeaning. That said, I really admire you for diving in head first to full cultural immersion. At least I have some friends here that I can speak English with – not to mention it is a Western country with lots of nice amenities (although the thai food is no Thai Market). I miss you dearest! Have you caught a glimpse of the BRT? I love your blog. I am having fun with the imagery of you as an Eduardian heroine riding through the Guatemalan cityscape, looking quite confused, your curls flowing in the wind…


  2. Johanna said

    Hello my beauty.
    your blog is as charming as you are, and i gobble up every post. i wish you so much luck in your cab driver small talk Spanish, and your deepest, darkest secret Spanish.
    JO, your lumberjack.

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