I only got the job in Colombia five weeks before I had to start teaching.
Five weeks is not enough time to learn a new language. But I figured that most people in Manizales speak at least some English (wrong!). And besides, I’m “fluent” in French! How hard could learning Spanish be? I’ll be trilingual in no-time (wrong!).
Before moving to Manizales, Colombia, the only Spanish words that I knew were the ones I’d heard referenced in pop culture, but I didn’t really know what they meant:
“Hasta la vista” (Goodbye/So long)
“Yo quiero Taco Bell” (I want Taco Bell)
“Feliz Navidad” (Merry Christmas)
“Adios amigos” (Goodbye friends)
“Livin’ la vida loco” (Living the crazy life)
“¡Ándale! ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba!” (Come on! Come on! Up! Up!)
“Shakira, Shakira” (This counts, right? She IS Colombian!)
Oh wait, I knew some food-related words, too:
Unfortunately, my limited Spanish hasn’t really helped me get by in daily tasks like going to the grocery store, taking public transit, and ordering at cafés and restaurants. Thus, I’ve been forced to learn and learn quickly. But I’m not learning as fast as is necessary to truly have a good life in Manizales, partly because I teach in English and speak to my closest friend in English, and partly because my natural awkwardness is exacerbated by the fact that I can’t communicate effectively with many locals. So, despite being surrounded primarily by unilingual Spanish speakers in my day-to-day life, I’m not actually “submerged” in the language as much as I should be.
This has created a few uncomfortable situations, such as not being able to direct a cab driver to my own apartment, waiting for over an hour for someone to pick me up for an event that I thought was on Tuesday but was really on Wednesday (Both martes and miércoles start with ‘m’), paying 20 000 pesos for something that cost 2 000 pesos, having my bilingual students help me write e-mails to their parents, trying to explain to a Spanish-speaking airline staff that my luggage needed to be checked through to Montréal and not Cancun, being lectured by a Spanish-speaking dental hygienist about my inadequate flossing habits, and most commonly, staring blankly, then giving an innocent, “no hablo español” pretty much anytime anyone approaches me in Spanish.
Luckily, I’ve been able to develop a few strategies to help me overcome the language barrier. I have a Google Translate app on my phone which has been a lifesaver and is usually accurate enough to communicate the general meaning of what I’m trying to say.
In addition, I’ve become an expert at playing charades. For example, last week, I was able to go to the drug store counter at the grocery store and ask for both sunscreen and contact lens solution without saying more than five words.
I’m also taking Spanish lessons with an amazing tutor and learning vocabulary with the awesome app, Duolingo.
Finally, I’ve accepted that in order to truly learn a new language, that you can’t be afraid to make mistakes. This means looking & sounding foolish and being completely okay with it. (Booze helps.)
Even though it’s been humbling and exhausting at times, learning to navigate the world in another language has helped me to gain perspective on what life is like for the English or French Language Learners that I’ll likely have in my classes once I start teaching in Canada. Just because someone can’t communicate doesn’t mean they don’t understand what’s going on! Also, it has opened my eyes to how much can be “said” without speaking.
Finally, it has shown me how warm and patient the Colombian people are. No one has ever made me feel stupid about my inability to communicate–it’s mostly in my own head–and usually, people are willing to take the time to make sure I understand what’s going on, whether it’s translating through an English-speaking friend, using Google Translate, or joining me in an entertaining game of charades.
Lo más importante es que estoy aprendiendo. Most importantly, I’m learning.
(Who am I kidding? That was totally cut and paste from Google Translate!)