It's all good when I'm trying to buy groceries and the lady at the check out and I can't have a conversation. All she has to do is scan 'em and bag 'em, and I'm outta there with another week's worth of grub.
And it's not so bad when I order something off a menu without knowing exactly what's on it, because my taste buds have gotten used to making the most of mystery meals. (Sidenote: I am currently paying the price for an experimental meal from Monday, the leftovers of which I finished on Thursday and subsequently banished my appetite thenceforth. I'm too embarrassed to tell you what all went into my mac and cheese remix.)
But when you need to relate to someone, to help them feel engaged and at home and comfortable - and this is a big part of my nature, to make people feel included - lacking language skills poses a problem. This weekend, we had our service retreat, and one guy showed up who didn't speak English. He was the first to arrive, and I had a nice enough conversation with him in my broken Spanish, but we couldn't really understand much of what the other was saying. When you can't understand their words, it's nearly impossible to read a person. That whole "90% of communication is nonverbal" thing flies out the window when there's a language barrier. Think about it: You hear someone's words, and only then do you start to gauge their tone, their sincerity, their comprehension. (Hey, that General Communications degree is starting to pay off!) When you're not getting the words, you're not getting much of anything that goes with 'em. Or against 'em. Reading people is something I think is a strength of mine. But I cannot read people when I don't understand their language.
I spoke to a (small) group today for the first time, and had to use a translator. I talked about submission to God and trusting Him fully to meet your needs. I had a few pages of notes - read that as "a meticulously wordeed transcript." I knew when it took us a whole minute to get past the first paragraph that the transcript was gonna have to go because we'd be there for an hour. So it flew out the window. Also, there was the smell of a wet dog coming from a cage behind me, and really loud salsa music coming from next door, and that whole mac and cheese remix thing that I had to contend with. When you have to stop yourself to wait for translation every sentence, you can't find any rhythm, and neither can your listeners. I've never been very good at feeling out an audience though, so they may very well have gotten what I was saying. I think, though it was tough, it was a success.
The hardest part about learning a new language is listening. We get the urge to translate things, but I don't think you're supposed to do that. It's not efficient. We think in English, but to truly speak another language, you need to find a way to think in it instead. It has to do with this:
Words aren't really things.
Words are symbols of things. What we call an orange isn't really an orange, it's a thing we symbolize with the word "orange." It's the same thing that Puerto Ricans call a "china" or a "naranja." Since I think of things as English words, when I hear spanish words I try to put them into English so I can understand them. Bilingual people take that step out. I told Julio that it was hard to speak with a translator and he agreed. He doesn't like translating. He thinks in English when he's talking to someone in English, and he thinks in Spanish when he talks to someone in Spanish. I'm not there yet. I need to learn a lot more words before I get there. This, I think, is why vocabulary is important. I can think in little Spanish phrases and words. "Yo creo que" - I think that... "Hola" - Hi. "No necesito..." I don't need... Those are little things that I don't need to put into English to say.
This concludes the cognitive science lesson for today.
How about a video of me getting bitten in the ear by a lizard: