One of my biggest goals while traveling South America is to improve my Spanish. Being naïve to language immersion, I thought it would be easy. It’s not like I’ve never had a Spanish class before. But after being in Colombia for two months, my conception of language-learning has changed dramatically. I thought I could simply translate from English but I had forgotten the vast complexities of language; how the link between saying and meaning is sometimes tenuous.
Since we don’t always use the same words or phrases to mean the same thing, directly translating doesn’t always make sense. For example, in Spanish there are two ways to know something and two ways to be, and I’m forever mixing them up. It becomes almost an exercise in philosophy. Am I really familiar with something or do I simply have knowledge of it? I can be really intimate with a place or I can simply know about it, and I’m not sure which one is appropriate.
At times, I have to ponder the nature of things or the nature of self. Am I a certain way temporarily or is this how I define myself? Saying “I am cold” the wrong way might mean that I’m cold-hearted, not that I need a jacket. Am I happy now or is my disposition a happy one in general?
We seem to define ourselves in different ways. In English, I would say “I am hungry,” but in Spanish I would say “I have hunger.” In my mother tongue, I define myself as 27 years old, but in Spanish, I only have 27 years at the moment. Spanish makes room for more flexibility in defining oneself. I am not hungry in general; I only have hunger right now.
With a limited vocabulary, I’m constantly muddling concepts. Saying something like “the end of the bed” could mean the untimely death of the bed and saying the paint feels wet could mean that it has damp sentiments.
Needless to say, when telling a story, the theme often becomes misconstrued, diluted, and sometimes changes course altogether. When trying to explain to my friend that I had mosquito bites, I ended up telling him that I had mosquito kisses instead, which is not at all how I would describe the horrible swollen bites on my face. Kindly, he corrected me.
“It’s not picos, it’s picaduras.”
“Ok,” I said, and promptly repeated back to him the wrong word.
“No,” he said, and to demonstrate he began a pantomime of smashing something with his fist.
Hence, my simple, nondescript story became a tale of mosquitos tenderly kissing my face in the night only to change suddenly to a gang of hardened criminal mosquitos smashing my face to steal my blood.
One time I attempted to tell him that my friend got married recently but it came out instead as “She was tired,” the words for married and tired being very similar.
“What’s the difference?” I tried to joke after being corrected.
Somehow I can still manage horrible dad jokes to my delight and to the chagrin of everyone else. I was telling someone that I bought jeans in Medellin. Because Colombians pronounce the double “l” with a “j” sound, Medellin sounds like Medejin. Hence, I joked, “Medejeans!”
But language-learning is not all bad jokes and story-telling. It’s a two-way street: speaking and understanding. Hearing a story is just as befuddling as telling one. I hear words and the story takes on an indefinite shape, the colors faded, the actions subdued. I know that there is a cat and a cake involved but I don’t know who did what to the cake and in what order things happened. Sometimes I meet someone who is patient with me and will carefully comb through the story with me, searching for the missing pieces and investigating what happened to the cake. When meaning finally comes, it’s like seeing after being blind; a flood that slowly fills my brain with color.
Sometimes not speaking the language properly is a source of comfort for an introvert such as myself. When introduced to a group of new people who don’t speak English, I can use my lack of common language as an excuse to shy away from conversation. Other times, making a genuine or heartfelt statement is easier because I don’t yet know the power of the words I’m using. To me, I’m only making abstract sounds that carry a shadow of significance, hence profound conversations carry the light weight of sincerity and innocence. But many times, I feel bound tight by the absence of known words and concepts. It’s a strange feeling to have something to say but not the tools to do so.
In many situations, I simply describe the things that I don’t have words for, to varying results. When I want to ask for a fan, I say “the thing that makes wind.” To describe the concept of rent, I say “when you buy something temporarily.” Sometimes it turns into a guessing game. If “when you buy something temporarily” doesn’t work, I say, “Ok, so when you don’t want to buy an apartment, but you want to live there, you…?” By the time we get the word figured out, I’ve already forgotten the story I wanted to tell, but I’ve learned a new word.
Thus, with guessing games and bad jokes, a backpack and hiking shoes, I will master the Spanish language.