Thursday, February 24, 2011

Breaking the Language Barrier

“Señor Hower?”

My 8th grade Spanish teacher’s voice shook me from my boredom-induced coma.

“Umm,” I stalled, “Sí.”

A few of my classmates snickered. I looked around, not quite sure why.

“Vestidos azules,” said the teacher, “You like to wear them?”

I thought for a moment. Azul is blue. But what are vestidos? Crap.

I decided to take the hint.

“No,” I replied, “No me gusta.”

The teacher rocked against her desk in a humping motion—her signature move—then flashed a nefarious smirk. “I’m glad you said you don’t like to wear blue dresses, Señor Hower.”

My face turned red as I slunked down in my seat.

Let’s just say Spanish wasn’t my favorite subject.

Attempting to communicate with some of the locals.
Perhaps if my 13-year old self had known that ten years later I would be living in a Spanish-speaking country, I would have tried to pay more attention.

One of the greatest challenges I have faced in Colombia has been dealing with the language barrier. Granted, I did not come here a complete Spanish noob—I took five years of Spanish in middle school, high school and college—but my conversational Spanish abilities were definitely lacking in the not sucking department.

To be fair, my five years of Spanish classes have given me a relatively firm foundation upon which to build. Prior to departing for Colombia, I attempted to brush up on my Spanish abilities. I thought it would be a good idea to buy RosettaStone to help me, so I bought a copy off of eBay. Much to my chagrin, when I received the package, I opened it only to find I had purchased a very convincing counterfeit.

In case you haven’t guessed, one of the realities of living in a Spanish-speaking country is hearing and speaking Spanish—a lot.  Since most Colombians don’t speak a word of English, I am forced to listen to and use Spanish every day—whenever I go to the store, take the bus, order food at a restaurant or do anything.

Thanks a lot, Meg Whitman.
Language barriers can make even the simplest thing into a herculean task—like haircuts, as I recently experienced. I rehearsed in my head what I was going to say the whole way to the barber shop, but when I got there, I clammed up. Finally, I spat out, “Corta mi pelo, por favor.” (Cut my hair, please). She gestured for me to sit, so I did. The haircut lady then asked, “Maquina o tijeras?” I knew maquina meant clippers, but I wasn’t sure what tijeras were. I guessed tijeras must be scissors, but I wasn’t sure. As far as I knew, it might mean “give me a mullet, please.” As mullets are very popular in Colombia, this was a valid apprehension. I told her to use the maquina on the side and the tijeras on top. My heart began to pound as she got to work and when she finished a few minutes later, I was relieved to see I had a pretty darn good, mullet-less haircut.

The best part about it was the haircut only cost $5,000 pesos (about $4 USD).

What now, Supercuts?

Unfortunately, when you move to a foreign country, you do not become fluent in the local language overnight. Learning is a difficult, slow and awkward process. Speaking Spanish with native speakers in everyday situations can be difficult—mistakes will inevitably be made and you must maintain a thick skin. People will laugh at you when you mispronounce words and you will feel like a complete jackass more often than not. You will have good days and bad days—days when everything seems to make sense and days where your mind draws blanks—but the key to success is to just keep trying.

I am not one of those people for whom learning a foreign language comes easy. I am going to have to work my butt off to become proficient, much less fluent.

To reach my goal of Spanish proficiency, I have been doing everything I can to improve—reading Spanish novels, listening to Spanish-language music and watching familiar movies in Spanish (I’m currently trying to make it through a pirated Spanish version of Toy Story 3).  

Achieving Spanish proficiency will continue to be a difficult, slow and awkward endeavor, but I’m confident that if I keep at it, by the end of my time in Colombia, I will get to where I want to be.

No comments:

Post a Comment