“The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” -Ludwig Wittenstein
As it turns out, journeying to a foreign country entails learning its language (quite well) and transitioning to its customs. Unluckily for me, I was hardly proficient in Spanish coming into Ecuador, and I knew even less of its unique traditions. To cope with the massive influx of new information and Spanish conversation, I had become accustomed to just replying to nearly anything that my host family (or really anyone) said with “sí!” Swell idea, right? Well, responding with “sí” has brought me to beautiful places, like one of the most highly praised and diverse flower markets in the world…
…but it has also gotten me dangerously close to trying cuy (Guinea Pig) from a street vendor, and other… unsavory… encounters. I’ve also had some bumps in the road with my host family, since I’d answer “Yes” to “How are you today?” or “What are your plans for this weekend?” It took a bit, but I’ve gathered enough Spanish to get by basic questions and, surprisingly, understand when to say “sí!”
The language barrier can hit in a variety of ways, whether on vacation (and I mean SHEESH, you´re just trying to have a relaxing getaway, but these people don´t speak ENGLISH!) or studying abroad. It´s a bit more of a challenge when you´re studying abroad, since you become a part of that culture for the time that you´re abroad. There are good days and bad days. I´ll have times that I can completely understand lengthy sentences about obscure topics, and other times that I can barely come up with a reply to “¿Que paso?” Though it´s a difficult transition that takes a lot of patience, anyone can hurdle this barrier with some determination, openmindedness, and desire to learn.
Through my struggle with the language barrier, I’ve garnered some tips for anyone attempting this same transition.
Listening is just as important (if not more so) than speaking.
To begin with, it’s much easier to listen to someone talk in another language than to speak it. Being a good listener will help a massive amount, as conversation is much more than just words; the facial expressions, tone of voice, and the context of the conversation will all assist in speaking another language, rather than just planning what you’re going to say in your head while the other person is talking. That´s a lesson in English as well, but hey, we´re focused on the language barrier right now.
Sometimes, only one or two words are needed to notice where a conversation is going.
I’d advise not to fret about the long, complex sentences that you may encounter. It’s a lot easier to listen out for the verb and whatever sort of question word that is found in the sentence. There are countless times that I´ve had no idea where a sentence is going until I hear a couple of magic words, like “película…noche?” More often than not, I´d wager that someone is asking you if you´d like to go to a movie that evening. It´s definitely not easy to find the meaning of an entire sentence from one or two words, but if you´re completely lost, it can be pretty helpful.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to mess up!
I may have just said “sí” to everything as to avoid embarrassment, but it eventually led to embarrassment anyways. Experience is the best teacher, so go out and mess up! I’ve made all sorts of friends in Cuenca trying to converse and goofing up. I met some really interesting Venezuelans in a restaurant because I ordered my meal in an odd fashion, and I´ll make someone´s day (quite often) when I butcher some Spanish word or phrase. They understand where you´re coming from, so it´s not the end of the world. Most everyone in Ecuador has either learned a bit of English in grade school, or they learned Quichua from interacting with the indigenous people here. They´ll laugh at your mistakes, but it´s lighthearted fun and they´ll usually help you along your way.
Overall, one of my greatest goals is to keep pushing myself, even on the bad days. The more effort you put into learning the language, the better off you´ll be at the end of the semester (hopefully speaking fluently!)