A Sharper Image

They say the best way to learn another language is immersion…go live in a society where no one speaks your first language. Yes, I can attest that it is as exciting, terrifying, difficult, and crazy as it sounds. And for me, it was actually a much longer process than I expected to really become fluent. Overall, language has been the most challenging, frustrating, and enlightening part of my job.

Take this example of when I had been in my new home for just 3 months, living in Peru for a total of 6 months:

Six months in Castellano: A 5-year-old professional

First of all, trying to be a professional in a language that I’ve been speaking only for about 6 months is ridiculous. I can’t think of a better word because it is a mix of hilarious, frustrating, challenging, exciting, and…just ridiculous. I know I have good ideas to share, but when I share them I sound like a 7-year-old. And half the time I don’t understand what other people are saying so I have this really weird look on my face because I’m concentrating so hard to try to understand what they are saying. They are probably thinking “what’s wrong with her?”, but they actually say, “She doesn’t understand what I just said.” And the funny thing is that I do understand that part. And usually I understand the topic, but can’t pick up the details.  

It’s a really weird world to live in. A little bit frustrating when I’m trying to gain respect as a professional and when I really want to be a part of the team and help out but have to ask people to repeat themselves when they are already pretty busy and pressed for time. But people are typically pretty awesome at being patient, speaking slowly, and explaining things. And it’s really cool when I am able to share knowledge and help solve problems, and have more fluid conversations with people. It is definitely worth it (“vale la pena”).

If you wear glasses or contacts, maybe you have experienced that moment when you put on a pair of glasses with the correct prescription and suddenly the world is so much clearer! Without your glasses (or the right prescription), you were living fine, getting around, but with the right glasses…wow! A whole new world! A sharper image! Fine edges, more brilliant colors, more detail! The world suddenly seems so much richer!

“I am speaking and living in my second language, and sometimes it feels a little bit like a handicap, something that impedes my ability to understand and communicate with people at the same level that the average person communicates with others.”

Every few months I have that experience, not with my vision, but with language. As my vocabulary grows, I begin to understand the world around me on a deeper level…even still at 2.5 years living here. It’s amazing how the dinner table conversations with family have changed from a blurry 70% of understanding the conversation to 99%.

The same has happened in my conversations with friends – suddenly in addition to just catching the drift of the conversation, I can also pick up on how their word choice adds humor or certain sentiments to the conversation that I just wasn’t able to pick up on before. Those blurry edges are becoming sharper, and I can now see the different tones of the colors! (And I realize every day how much patience everyone has had with me, considering my lack of understanding before!)

Maybe you have experienced something similar when reading a book, with a dictionary at your side. Sometimes you come across words that you don’t know, but you can guess from context clues what the word means, so you continue reading. But then when you take time to look up the word, you realize its full meaning and it actually gives the sentence – and sometimes the story – a richer meaning that you would have missed out on if you hadn’t understood the full meaning of that one word. (Or every now and then you find you were completely wrong about the word’s meaning in the first place!)

This adequately describes my verbal life as well. I usually don’t realize it when it happens, but sometimes I don’t understand every single word that someone says, but because I understand 95% of the words, I can continue with the conversation not even realizing I didn’t hear or understand one word. (This isn’t unique to speaking in a second language; the human brain is wired to fill in the blanks of what we don’t see or don’t hear, and that’s why optical illusions exist.) Usually it works out perfectly and helps the conversation flow, but every now and then it leads to a misunderstanding when that missed word was important in the communication.

It’s easy to get frustrated when someone doesn’t understand us when we’re both speaking our first language, but I’m reminded that we still come from different contexts and even the same words can have different meanings and connotations for different people. (More on this in the next part.)

I am speaking and living in my second language, and sometimes it feels a little bit like a handicap, something that impedes my ability to understand and communicate with people at the same level that the average person communicates with others.

It makes me extra grateful for the people that have a little extra patience with me. And it reminds me that we all do have different levels of understanding, communication abilities, and contexts, and it really is worth being patient with one another to try to achieve successful communication – to more fully understand each other and appreciate where each person is coming from.

Part II. Language is more than words; it’s concepts

One thing that I have learned (and now I see daily examples of this in action) is that communication is based not only in language but in what we already know, our schemas, our preconceived notions, past experiences, etc.

For example, one day, 6-months into service (and craving vegetables having been practically vegetarian before moving here), I decided I would try to order a vegetarian version of what was on the menu (knowing full well that the odds of success were low…but wanting to give it a try anyway.)

First I ask if I can have the “cau cau” without the meat part (cow’s stomach lining) because it comes with carrots and peas and potatoes, which sounded good to me. She looked at me confused and said no that was not an option.

Cau Cau. Image from: https://decomidaperuana.com/receta-del-cau-cau/

So then I explained that I would like to eat a dish with just vegetables, so she nods in understanding and excitedly says “we can make a salad with lettuce and tomato and cucumber”. While that sounded good, I needed some sustenance in my life too, so I tried to explain that I’d like cooked vegetables with some rice maybe. I ask if they can make me a plate of vegetables like onion, carrots, and peppers, like “lomo saltado” without the beef.

Lomo Saltado. Image from https://wapa.pe/hogar/1264144-recetas-preparar-lomo-saltado-comida-gastronomia-peruana-almuerzo

Confused again, she shakes her head no and says “like beans and rice with vegetables?” For a split second I think she has finally got it, but having already experienced that many people’s idea of vegetables is lettuce and tomato and cucumber, I knew I needed to clarify before I get my hopes up. So I asked, “Will the beans be made with onions, carrots and peas?”.And like I expected, she says, “No, it comes with lettuce, tomato, and cucumber”. Realizing we are speaking the same language but not speaking the same language (and to her I’m probably being a difficult customer), I agree and ask for the beans and salad.

This same concept misunderstanding has happened to me too. I work in the municipality office and so paperwork is pretty much everyone’s life. And the mother of paperwork is the “cargo”, which is the copy of the document you keep for yourself and have everyone sign to verify they’ve received their copy. When I first arrived, I had 3 different people at three different times explain this concept to me, and I understood the words they were saying, but I just couldn’t get the concept. Since I didn’t have experience with the process and for some reason couldn’t imagine the concept (I guess I was just too used to the world of e-mail and digital documents), I couldn’t understand the meaning of what everyone was telling me.

Then there is the water system operator that I work with that is really hard for me to understand; I rarely catch 75% of his words and am always subconsciously filling in the blanks to carry a conversation. (And this is still, after 2 years of being here!) However, I have about 10 years of experience in engineering and rural water systems, so when the operator was explaining some technical issues about his water system, with the 75% of the words I caught, I understood him more quickly and thoroughly than my team members, who are native Spanish speakers but are much younger and just have fewer years of experience in water systems. In this interesting case, I understood something better than my native-speaking companions simply because I was more familiar with the concept.

These are just a few examples of daily occurrences where communication across cultures is made more difficult because we have different schemas – different experiences, memories, priorities, things we’ve thought of before and things we haven’t ever thought of.

I think this is so important to realize for a few reasons…

“sometimes other people are explaining something that I just have not experienced before”

It takes a different mindset to understand something that you haven’t experienced before or haven’t learned before. To understand something new, I’ve noticed my mind has to be open, like I’m sitting in a classroom trying to understand something completely new, trying to connect it to my past experiences and sometimes just taking in some new information on faith, with an open mind. Usually, my mind is not in this mode – it is in the mode of trying to understand things based on my past experiences, as quickly as possible.

When I hear something new, I try to relate it to something I’ve experienced so I can understand what is happening, how someone else might be feeling, or how I should react. But this method of understanding isn’t always the best or most appropriate way to approach communication, because sometimes other people are explaining something that I just have not experienced before. Or maybe I have experienced something similar so I immediately relate their experience to an experience I’ve had before and I am sure I understand them… but actually I end up misunderstanding and maybe offending them because their experience actually had differences from mine and I didn’t take time to try to understand that difference because I was sure I already understood them.

This happens all the time in our relationships, both on an interpersonal level, and on a larger political level. I think this is a component to the problems the US is having right now when discussing race relations, immigration, and police brutality. While we can try, the reality is that white people don’t know exactly what it is like to be a person of color, especially a black man, and those of us whose ancestors migrated to the US many decades ago don’t actually understand what it’s like to be an immigrant. If you have never experienced life as a person of color or a minority, it’s likely you haven’t experienced the blatant or the subtle racist comments and attitudes that exist in society, directed at you and who you are. If we are too quick to say that we understand the situation of racism in the US, we most likely are not even close to understanding the reality.

However, if we take a lot of time, through many conversations with many people of color and minorities, in many different scenarios, and with a very open mind every time – with that mentality open to trying to understand an experience we have never have had – we might be able to come closer to understanding what racism really is, and what forms it takes, and then we can start to create ways to live together better, to create a more peaceful and more just society.

(Header image from http://jacksonvillevisionclinic.com/lenses/4115670)

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