“Don’t worry about it, I will pay for lunch. After all, I am a ghost.”
As soon as that final word escaped my lips, I knew that I had made a big mistake. But that is what happens when learning a language. A slip of one vowel or consonant – or in this case, one tone – can drastically change the meaning of your sentence. Mistakes are bound to happen. The only thing that a language learner can hope for is the great fortune of having understanding and patient conversation partners.
When I called myself a ghost, I was out with several friends in Bangkok. It is tradition in Thailand for the oldest to pay for shared meals. On that day, I was the phi – said with rising tone – the older sister. What came out was phi – said with falling tone – ghost. Big difference! Luckily, my friends just laughed and I happily joined in.
Almost ten years later, I found myself in an intensive Spanish immersion program, still making similar mistakes.
Yesterday, when meeting with a potential landlord I was prepared. I wore a conservative, professional outfit and topped it off with a list of thoughtful questions, meticulously researched the night before. The last question on the list: could she could install a doorknob (pomo) on the bedroom door before I moved in?
When I asked, I was greeted with a blank but somewhat confused stare. Ok, I thought, the word is not pomo in Mexico…I will try making the international door-opening hand gesture. A horrified look came back at me. Clearly I am not communicating correctly. “You know, the thing on the door that makes it open and close?” This time, I am greeted with boisterous laughter and smiles for finally understanding my relatively normal question. “Oh! You mean a chapa!!’ “Apparently, yes. That is what I meant. So, what’s a pomo anyway?”
The landlord responds that in Mexico, pomo refers to an area for drinking alcohol. She thought that I wanted a bar installed in my bedroom! Making matters worse, when I did the door-opening gesture, she thought that I was making the alcohol-drinking gesture. Why exactly are these hand motions so similar? Anyhow, awesome first impression, right? I will be a responsible, yet alcoholic tenant. At least I am memorable now!
Before I moved to Mexico, the only conversation I had ever mustered in Spanish was the phone interview with a Peace Corps staff member. I had practiced for months using Rosetta Stone, and was very proud that I was able , barely, to say things like: I ride my bicycle during the weekend, over the phone. It was a big deal!
When our training program started, I was not able to understand almost anything that my host family said, asking for directions in the city was enough to give me hives, and I felt lost when reading menus. A mere eleven weeks later, I tested at an intermediate-speaker’s level! Special thanks to my host family, a fantastic language program coordinator at the Peace Corps office, my enthusiasm and desire to go beyond mere survival-Spanish, and six very
specific terrific people.
The first day of training, I was placed in a Spanish class with three other people. Within days, we became close friends. Within weeks, we became family, inside jokes to boot! “How do you say mullet in Spanish,” Damon asks. Response: blank stare. “You know, the hair with business in front and a party in back? [pause] A Kentucky fountain?” Through laughter: “what??” After we giggle our way through describing a mullet, “oh! A buki!” Aptly named after the lead singer from a band called Los Bukis. Oh, there are so many great memories and stories from that class.
Over the eleven weeks, we also had three different instructors. Each was fantastically talented, supportive, curious to learn about us, and excited to see our progress. To break up our days of three-to-six hour sessions, they facilitated games, told stories, but mostly they laughed along with us: at funny mistakes; at catch-phrases; at unintentional innuendos. It was all done in support of each other. Mostly, we laughed just for laughing sake.
On our last day of class, we went to a café and chatted about our experience of learning Spanish together. Chelsea had a great point: when you are learning a new language, you have two options: you can laugh, or you can cry.
I have to admit, I have more than once felt extraordinarily frustrated when trying to communicate here. Like the time that my host mom asked what I had been talking to my mother about on Skype. How the heck am I supposed to explain Roth IRAs and tax benefits when I have troubles sounding more sophisticated than a toddler??
But now, when I start feeling frustrated, I remember Chelsea’s advice, and I think about my experience in Spanish class. Now, all that I can do is laugh! And smiles paired with efforts certainly take you a long way in Mexico.
A big thank you to:
- Everyone who has helped me in learning Spanish so far; ¡albóndigas!
- All those who are patient with my communication-foibles right now
- Those who I will meet in the coming months!
Making me smile
- Love and support from home. Your emails and skype dates mean the world to me. Keep ’em coming!
- I have a mailing address now. If you want it, email me!!
- The quick trip to get a sandwich to-go that turned into an hour and a half conversation, along with a free fruit salad, an invite for a home-cooked dinner, and a promise to stay in contact. This is a common experience
- Lime and chili goes on everything, from ice cream to crickets, from corn to peanuts
- A bag of six avocados costs less than $1
- Yoga class involved a segment for stretching and exercising my eyeballs…what??