November 24, 2010

No comprendo

I have lived here for two whole weeks and I still cannot speak Spanish.

Before I came, people gave me mixed advice as to how well I'd get along here with my level of Spanish. I know a little bit. Not a lot, but enough to be dangerous. And little enough to be dangerous. A guy from the Dominican told me I'd be fine.

Lawrence, a missionary who's been here for a long time, told me you're never lost in Puerto Rico. There's always another English speaker around, no matter where you are. All of the government documents are supposed to be in English and Spanish. I think they're supposed to provide an English translator if you have official government business. That's not always the case, though. At one government office, Lawrence was told "We speak Spanish here."

Kids learn English growing up in school. So anyone who's been educated should, in theory, be able to speak it, at least a little bit. But there's a reluctance to pick it up. People don't always admit it when they do know it. They would rather speak Spanish than stumble through a conversation in English, and I can't really blame them for that. I've had a few encounters which begin something like this:

Me: "¿Hablas inglés?"
Them: [shakes head]
Me: [unintelligible, grammatically barren Spanish mumbling]
Them: "Jeez. I guess I can help you with that."

Now, this doesn't always happen. I actually can get a few thoughts across. I'm getting pretty good at telling people, in Spanish, that they need to speak slowly because I'm bad at Spanish. Hablo muy terriblé. And when people speak slowly and deliberately, I can pick up what they're talking about and usually formulate a response.


When I'm all alone, and someone says something to me in Spanish, my brain's first response usually isn't to translate, it's "Holy crap, Spanish. Whaddaya gonna do?" And so even if they say words I know, I don't hear them. The other day I was at the mall in Ponce looking for some flippy-floppies (I was in my swim trunks.) The clerk behind the counter said "Buenos Tardes." (Good afternoon.) I panicked. "Bien, ¿y tu?" (Good, and you?) The next thing she said was, in English, "You don't speak Spanish, do you?" I hung my head and said no. It's simulataneously hilarious and humiliating. But I do. Sort of. I can read it, I can hear it fairly well. I just can't hardly speak it.

There have been a few interactions in which I, much like a Puerto Rican who'd rather just not mess with an awkward conversation in the wrong language, just confess I don't speak Spanish. Someone will rattle off long, mumbly phrases that I don't understand. "No comprendo," I said, once.

I've heard that before. It's kind of the cliché phrase you'd hear in the States from an immigrant, often from Latin America. "No comprendo."

I haven't always handled it well. It's frustrating to hear when you're trying to convey something. Oh jeez. another non-speaker. If you're gonna live in the country, ya better learn to speak the language.

But there's something really humiliating about confessing that. I live here and I don't speak the language. I'm suddenly something people have to accommodate. When I first said "no comprendo," I immediately thought about immigrants who have to say that in the States, and how they must share my humiliation. I can never, ever, hear that again without feeling great empathy.

I've never been one to rage about the fact that you need to press one for English and extend your phone call for another 3 seconds. Some people throw a fit over that. This is America. We speak English here. Most of us do. Some of us don't. We all probably should eventually, but it takes some time.

Either way, language is a huge barrier. If I'm going to live here and serve people, and relate to them, I had better be able to speak their language. My job requires it.

In other news:

They have Black Friday here, too.

Speaking of Thanksgiving-related chaos, here in Puerto Rico they have the Turkey Run. Like our lame-duck day-before-a-holiday school days, kids show up to school and don't really do anything. They eat breakfast. Then they have a race and the winner gets a Turkey. I went this morning to check it out at the school down the road. And since I still can't figure out how to embed the video and have it fit right, video is HERE.


Anonymous said...

You keep on, bro. You'll start to comprende just fine in a few weeks!! :) Buena suerte, amigo! Dios te bendiga. ;)

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