Somewhere in our collective memory, we have a story of a North American who visits ______ (Mexico, Peru, or wherever). The person, usually an attractive young woman, stands in a crowded stadium and shouts out a cheer, only to realize belatedly she yelled out a slang word for a female body part, not the cheer she thought she knew. The collective crowd of tens of thousands instantly yank their heads in her direction as her companions yank her down to her seat.
She knows the sole remedy is to return home, take the veil, and enter a cloistered community. Her life as tourist/volunteer/missionary or whatever she thought she was doing outside of English-speaking regions is over. Her life will now be devoted to knitting woolen booties for orphans in an windowless cell.
The story has endless variations, with gender, language and occasion changing. The result is always the same. Never, ever, ever will the naive English speaker attempt speaking a foreign language again.
I lived in Honduras for almost a decade. I have uttered a lifetime of embarrassing phrases in Spanish in less than 10 years. I have asked a young boy to show me his breast, rather than his chest. I once spoke that I was full of human waste, not fear. I suspect there are many, many things that I said that I haven’t been told because I have kind, merciful friends there.
Despite being overly aware of my language deficiencies in my first years in Honduras, I realized that at some point, I was using Spanish all of my working hours. I could converse with my co-workers, bank tellers, grocery store clerks. When I got home, I often didn’t switch to English right away. Even the dog became bilingual.
Am I as good as a native? No, I am not even close. Spanish has at least fourteen verb conjugations for each verb. I understand half of those, and speak almost half of that number, which means I exist mainly the present tense when using Spanish.
What was the key to my success, albeit modest success, in conquering a foreign language? I stopped worrying and started speaking at every opportunity. I used what little language instruction I had received, and I applied it as best I could.
Language is fraught with opportunities, both good and bad, for communication. It can unite us, divide us. It can bring information that saves or bring news of disaster upon us. We depend upon language to stave off isolation and build community.
My language lesson today for anyone reading is quite simple. Don’t worry. Embrace the experience of learning a language, whatever the results may yield. One day you will realize you have some success. Why even your dog will understand you. He will sit steadfastly when you say, “come,” in any language you choose.
This post is linked to Velvet Ashes, a forum for women serving overseas.
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