Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Learn Spanish or Bust

One of the hardest, most daunting parts of this job is the language barrier. I'd consider myself an advanced Spanish speaker now, but when I first got here I was terrified to open my mouth. Terrified. Proper communication is all about timing, so when I had to first sing a song in my head to pinpoint the correct past tense ending, I often ended up contributing an anecdote to an old topic (Q: Isn't the weather beautiful today? A: Yes, my food was very good...) My coping mechanism? Keeping my mouth shut.

Thanks for your impeccable Spanish skills, Maddie!
One day too soon, my feasibility trip partners left and I was still in Guatemala charged with the task of creating MPI's newest international volunteer site--cementing local partnerships, attending meetings, convincing people that I wasn't a mute American with no personality. And as you've probably already guessed, all of that required Spanish. What was MPI thinking right? Well, when I first broke my promise to myself and opened my mouth to a foreign tongue, it was not pretty. I butchered even the simplest of statements, if not grammatically, absolutely in pronunciation. But out of the need to speak, I spoke. You know the drill--hurdle, jump; water, swim; fire, stop, drop and roll.. or run? I'm still unclear on that.

The point being, trying to speak a foreign language does make you feel stupid, embarrassed, and the butt of many a joke (and trust me, I was. I once blurted out some unintelligible question at a restaurant and when prodded to repeat I just froze like a deer in headlights, didn't say another word, turned around, and made my friend take over). It's like doing anything as a novice in front of seasoned professionals: singing, dancing, cooking, anything. So why should we try? There are a lot of Guatemalan English speakers that would love to accept your money in return for relaying meeting notes to you. Aaron Ausland of Staying for Tea offers this poignant response,

"Because language is a bit like food. People just love it when you make an effort to eat their food...I was talking with some community volunteers who were recalling the last time they had an American visit their village from World Vision. "Hey, do you know so-n-so?" they asked me, a bit naïve to the size of my organization. But, in fact I did know this person. "He's such a great guy!" they exuded. "Why do you say that?" I asked, curious. "He ate everything we gave him," one exclaimed. And the rest all nodded vigorously and happily at this. "Do you know who this man was?" I asked, pressing the point a bit. They recalled that he was an American and from World Vision and again applauded his culinary enthusiasm. What they didn't recall about this person was that he was the International President of World Vision.
What left a lasting impression on these folks was not the man’s position, but his willingness to lift his fork and dive into their culture. He embraced part of what defined them without hesitation or judgment. He received from them without turning up his nose at what they had to offer. Language is a bit like this. A willingness to learn and use even a few words demonstrates a willingness to be vulnerable and to make an effort to accept and use what is local. It recognizes that you are the visitor and honors your host."
Olga & Jose are learning their third language!
The two terrifying things that I take away from this short excerpt are 1) I need to start eating more corn tortillas and atoll loaded with sugar. 2) If the goal is simple communication, Spanish will suffice, but if ultimate goal is honoring your host, shouldn't the PDs and I be learning Kaqchikel?

The good news? Learning a new language can stave off alzheimers!

Till next time,



  1. This post warms my heart (and also makes me crave tortillas). I think language classes would be a great idea! Are there organizations in the area offering courses you could attend? Or maybe you would work out an "I teach you English and you teach me Kaqchikel" arrangement with some of the Chaquijya locals. I also still have that Kaqchikel Bible I bought from the school for disabled kids outside of Antigua if you need any reading material!

    Miss you lots and super proud of your improved Spanish skills. Besos!

  2. great language topic you write on your blog about the Spanish language the most popular language in the world and many people are learning this language, keep it up thank for sharing on your blog.