My whole world centers around language these days.
Spanish, the language I feel connected to for a reason I have never understood. It has always sounded familiar, as if it were background music that I’ve heard throughout my life but never stopped to learn the words to. Now I’m learning those words and trying to make sense of the culture.
There is a beautiful humility to learning a language because you are wrong ninety nine percent of the time when starting out. I remember this when learning Gilbertese while in Kiribati and I feel those same frustrations and successes here.
With language, even when you’re right and can be understood you can still be a little bit wrong. I imagine I am like a toddler talking. No one is going to correct every single thing a toddler says because it’s great that they are trying. Now imagine you are a 36 year old toddler talking. Somehow I get the feeling it’s not nearly as adorable.
The verbs in Spanish.
There are a lot more past tenses then future in Spanish. My teacher Maria Je’s theory is that Spanish love to tell stories and remember the old days. There is an entire past tense, as far as I can tell, which is dedicated solely to making stories more vivid and detailed. I call it the bababa tense and I love it because past tense of “I spoke” is hablaba. Along with that comes the spontaneity of this culture where you rarely make plans more than a day in advance. Perhaps for this reason, there are only a few ways to speak about the future.
Live in the moment, remember fondly the past. I am completely fascinated by all of these details.
There are a million minute ways to screw up even the simplest of sentences.Why can’t Spanish verbs just follow the rules it created? I sometimes muse. Why are there words like “ver,” that gorgeous sinister chameleon who changes form seemingly at whim? It feels like a ploy to twist your mind up. But then like all things, you find the fascination in its apparent inconsistency. Because it does make sense, I just don’t get it yet. And I love the idea of learning the rules just so you can destroy them.
So I get it, Spanish. I feel you. Most of the time
But every once in a while I want to throw a grammar book across the room and scream
WHY, IR, Verb I need to use all the time?
Why are you FUE all of the sudden?! I gave you a break for the voy/ va stuff but now that you’re past tense, you’re too cool for rules? We were having such a nice time!
These days happen more infrequently now. I’m getting there. It’s only been a few months and I can safely order wine in a restaurant and also say “I’m joking!” So the basics are covered.
But there’s more to this than just learning Spanish. There are 1000 other languages and subtleties to immersing yourself in a new culture.
The language of a new time zone and subsequent unintentional wake ups by well meaning friends and family from home who forget the 6 hour time difference.
There’s metres, litres, kilometres, centigrade, futbol, Euros, kilograms and 14:00. (which I should but still don’t know from my days working on boats) All of those glorious differences between English spoken in the U.S. and most other parts of the world. I have to rely greatly on other people’s reactions when they discuss the weather.
It’s going to be 30 tomorrow.
(Long beat while I study their face trying to do the conversion in my head. If they look disgusted, that’s my cue that 30 must be hot).
Then I say something like Whoa. No thank you. We all have a good laugh and I have gotten away with it again. But this won’t last forever. I will eventually have to learn this simple conversion… For weather temperatures you can make a rough conversion from Celsius to Fahrenheit by doubling the figure and adding 30.
Like jokes in Spanish, temperatures click just a few seconds too late. “That’s like 90 degrees! Ahh!”
Then there is the language of transient friends. Keep in touch, See you when you come back, Buen Viaje. Travel buddies, temporary classmates. For-now expats heading back home. The revolving door that is life abroad, where you just enjoy the moments you have with people because you know they will probably be off soon.
Body language. For the first conversation I had with my boyfriend’s mom, we relied heavily on pantomime, google translate and facebook photos to communicate. I wanted her to know me, not the Spanish version of me who is timid and far less funny because of my lack of language skills. I wanted to tell her everything and instead said something like “these my best friends. I happy in Spain. I work before on boats.” She was patient and she cared enough to wade through the swamp of limited vocabulary with me and she used her English skills to fill in the gaps. It was a moment where you get that thing we all crave when learning a new language: Connection.
For the first time in a long time, I am remembering the language of cohabitation. I am living with a fellow wanderer who coincidentally decided to put down roots the same time I did. I watch us learn how to speak this new thing into being- both of us a little clumsy and unused to having our feet firmly on the ground and in one place. We learn each other’s habits, moods and feelings about fan usage. But in this day by day invention, I am discovering love to be something different and far sweeter than I ever thought. Quite simply, he is an incredible person. I don’t have trouble finding the words for this. Yesterday, I asked if we could only speak in Spanish for our entire walk. He agreed and what followed can only be described as the world’s longest silence before we both started cracking up. “Pues…”
And very often, the invisible language of empathy steps in to my life in Spain.
I was at my stop on the metro and the doors were not opening.
WHY AREN’T THE DOORS OPENING? My face must have screamed. HOW DO I GET OFF THIS THING? THIS IS MY STOP! I AM STUCK ON THIS TRAIN FOREVER. In a moment I mentally say goodbye to the life I once had and begin to make new plans as a metro dweller who must live off the package of nuts and crumbs of popcorn in the bottom of her backpack for eternity. What of my job? My life here? I smile at my new train family. They seem nice, I think to myself. THIS IS MY HOME NOW.
Then some kind soul would gently make eye contact, smile and lift the lever to release the doors and I would casually walk out like I knew all along that the doors don’t open automatically. Little gestures mean everything.
More than once every day it crosses my mind that this is a joy. Learning a language. All these languages. Opening myself up to maybe thousands of new people simply because we are able to understand each other. Embarrassing myself often enough to never get cocky.
To ensure this, the Spanish universe conspired one day to have me slip and fall on a pile of dog poop on a crowded sidewalk. Nothing keeps you down to earth like the few moments after such an event where you dust yourself off and laugh hysterically for 5 full minutes while old Spanish men refuse to meet your eye, probably to keep from also laughing.
There is also the language of solidarity with all those brave enough to learn another language or speak in their native tongue wherever they call home. They know what it is to open your mouth in a room full of foreigners and pray you’ll be understood or at the very least, acknowledged.
For these reasons and because I am a human, the cruelty with which so many people treat those from cultures different than their own is baffling and heartbreaking to me. I mostly think of the stories from my own country but it happens here in Europe as well.
People who know multiple languages know humility. They know courage. They know that you learn to read people far better when you are forced to sit on the sidelines for awhile and simply observe people without always talking or planning your next witty response. They learn to listen. Because that’s usually the skill that is easiest practiced. By the time you are able to contribute, your opinions are fully formed and your thoughts are typically well rounded. These are people with incredible patience, unimaginable guts and true intelligence.
I am learning just as everyone else is and I have begun to think of language as a tool. It’s a way to connect instantly with someone. A way to open up to each other instead of hiding behind the comfort of what we already know and fearing what is not yet understood.
I imagine every accent as a badge of honor. It means you come from somewhere which is a part of you but also that you bound for new experiences. I understand the effort it takes to untangle words from multiple languages and different customs in the brain to try to contribute to a conversation.
This is my first day with no Spanish classes and I miss it. The shared vulnerability of classmates trying out new words on each other. The security of a teacher to guide me and the guaranteed practice time. The constant learning.
But this pajarita had to leave the nest.
That didn’t feel right. A quick fact check confirms that I did just say “This bow tie had to leave the nest.” Redo.
This pajarito is out of the nest and ready to learn the language of flying solo with my Spanish skills.