August 02, 2006

8-2 Immersion

The language portion of this experience has really been something else. It’s been illuminating to discover which words I’ve felt like I couldn’t make it without using and a sometimes exhausting adventure trying to break a single English word that I couldn’t translate into a roundabout explanation in basic Spanish. In general though, it’s the little connecting and comparison words that are the most frustrating to forget or not to know in the first place, more so than their more complicated cousins.

When I first got here and couldn’t think of a Spanish word to use, sometimes a word or two of German would pop into my head instead. And it isn’t like I’ve really been studying my German since I finished my courses last year. I thought that was a little odd, but a friend here said that something similar happened to her when she was learning Spanish; that she’d throw in a French word now and again. I don’t know how many people that happens to when starting a third language, but given that I’ve already met at least one other person out of a very small sample, it can’t be that uncommon.

That doesn’t happen as much anymore though, particularly since I’ve discovered the many uses of que in Spanish. It’s not just ‘what,’ but ‘that,’ ‘than,’ ‘whether,’ sometimes ‘who’ in cases where in English you might use a third person pronoun or say ‘that’ about someone in particular. There’s another word for who, quien, but it isn’t such the multi-purpose powerhouse. Que also sometimes means ‘to,’ as in ‘I have to.’ Tengo que …, is what people say, instead of the more formal ‘must,’ deber, which I learned first in Spanish class but haven’t heard anyone use.

Still, the German actually came in enormously handy. Both German and Spanish use one word for ‘to make,’ and ‘to do.’ In German, machen, in Spanish, hacer. It’s still a little difficult to tiptoe around sentences that, if they were in English, would use both words one right after the other and meaning completely different things. At least I had a little practice with that, but now and again it’s quite awkward.

Then there have been times when I’ve been thinking about something while alone, started a thought in Spanish and then thought, “I can’t finish that, I don’t know the words.” No puedo pensar ésta. Language is such a part of who we are, but under normal circumstances it’s as easily ignored as the air we breathe.

When I’m in conversation with people here, another thing I’ve seen is that it’s really the simpler task to make myself understood than to understand someone else. That seems obvious, but has made me question my speech patterns generally. After all, it was probably the same way when I was very small and didn’t know a lot of words, when I was forming my primary language habits for life. As the conversation went in Pulp Fiction, I can plainly see myself waiting to talk instead of listening in a way that’s probably hard to notice when my basic assumption is that I understand the language.

It’s been a little harder this last week and a bit, because the lack of a working knowledge of the past tense and limited use of conditionals makes it hard to ask a lot of things. Or explain certain things. We just didn’t get to that in the 10 weeks of Spanish instruction I had before coming. I end up using the present tense and tacking the word ‘before,’ antes, somewhere in there. It seems nominally to work, but even I have to wince at how very clunky this must sound. There are days when it’s really a slog, even to say or understand things that seemed perfectly simple a day or two previous.

And of course, there are things that can cross a lot of barriers. When I got some bad news from home, the only person who said anything that really made me feel better doesn’t know a single word of English. She did a great job, even though she has to talk slowly to me, as if to a child, and repeat herself often. And somehow, I was able to find clearer words than I usually can to tell her what was wrong in the first place. Hurt and comfort aren’t that complicated, whatever I’d normally like to think when I have the vocabulary available to lie to myself.

I might try to deduce from that last observation some shiny possibility of a world where people could resolve all their differences and try to reach a common ground. Instead, I’ve reached rather the opposite conclusion. The only thing that makes people move towards each other in understanding is desire, motivation. Sometimes a sense of desperation to communicate. You have to want it a lot.

We can be taught new words all the livelong day, but we only want what we want. Si faltamos deseo, nuestro poder es perdio y nuestros opciónes son pocos.

Posted by natasha at August 2, 2006 01:55 PM | Costa Rica | Technorati links |

Having blundered about in a number of languages besides my native English, I chronically find the word from one of the other half-learned languages when I search for a Spanish word. I think in my case this comes from acquiring a kind of reading knowledge, but never fluency.

Sounds like you are making yourself vulnerable enough to learn to Spanish. ¡Que bueno!

Posted by: janinsanfran at August 3, 2006 10:38 AM

Mmmm... Not to be nitpicky, but the correct sentence would be "Si nos falta el deseo, perdemos nuestro poder y nuestras opciones son pocas". Anyway, congrats for studying spanish and doing some real progress.

Posted by: NPC at August 10, 2006 10:59 PM