“What is your favorite food?” the teacher asked with methodical dictation.
“My… favorite… food… is… uh… manzanas!” replied the young student, copying her teacher’s cadence.
“Apples!” reminded the patient, bilingual instructor.
I sat reading on the floor below, but was momentarily distracted by the beautiful sounds of freshly-learned English being carried by the morning’s amazingly strong wind. Wow, I thought. She’s already come so far in just three weeks!
And then I snuck upstairs to take this photo:
Learning a new language is so challenging. I should know, I have tried just about every method possible to learn Spanish over the past five years. First I took an evening class at my local community college. We started the semester with over two dozen students, but finished with less than 10. Seems I wasn’t the only one with lofty ideas about adding the Spanish language to my repertoire. In the beginning, the problem was that I kept tripping on the five years of French that had taken up residence in my brain. [Yes, count me in the group of girls who were dreaming of finding love in Paris when it came time to pick a foreign language in high school. Why, oh why, couldn’t I have been lured by the idea of a Latin man instead? It surely would have saved me a ton of stress a few decades later!]
Anyway, at one point we played a game where each team would send a contestant to the front to see who could come up with the Spanish translation more quickly, after the teacher provided an English word or phrase. The teams were tied as I approached the podium. The verb for “to play,” called the teacher.
“Jouer!!!” went the oh-so-confident (and younger) version of myself.
ENNNNNNH, went the crowd.
“Jugar” went the correct opponent.
“This is Spanish class, Wendy, not French!” went the teacher.
I finished that semester with a heavily marked up Spanish – Level 1 book, but not a ton of actual Spanish comprehension. Mostly, I felt like my brain was a big food processor where English, French, and now Spanish was all being mixed to shreds so much so that nothing made sense. Transition, it seems, can be quite tough.
Since then, I’ve tried an online class (for which I paid way too much), phone apps (then decided they are only good for games and dictionaries), a week of intensive personal instruction here in Nicaragua, private tutors, and self-study. So where did it get me? Well, I finally was successful in purging most of that French from my brain (so much so that I had to look up French for “to play” before I could write about it above). And, I no longer speak Spanish with a French accent (now it’s the opposite).
And, after almost 18 months in a Spanish-speaking country, I feel like I can survive fairly well here. I am far from fluent (far, really really far), but I am pretty good at expressing my general needs and figuring out what someone is trying to say to me. But there are plenty of situations where I am completely misunderstood. Once, when pulled over for an unknown infraction I still don’t understand, I wimped out and offered a pathetic, “no español” excuse.
“Why not?” asked the police officer in his native tongue. “You live in Nicaragua!”
Good point, kind sir.
I had grand illusions of moving here and there being some sort of Spanish-switch in my brain that might just get flipped on. (Hey, it can happen!) But it didn’t. It takes a lot (A LOT) of work to make the transition from one language to another, and from one culture to another. After a 7 month hiatus, I am starting my tutoring again in January. I needed a break because after 2-hour time blocks of Spanish-only, where I can’t cheat with Google Translate or veg out on Facebook for a few minutes, my brain is literally fried. (That’s why I learned how to say “Me duele la cabeza.” in my very first private class. Because at the end, my head just really hurts.)
Now, knowing how much this language-learning has challenged the comfortably-rooted-in-my-family self… can you imagine being nine, and getting plopped into a brand new family, speaking a brand new language, in a brand new home? The other people are great, but when they stare at you speaking words you don’t know, you just don’t get it. They could be saying something as simple as “Hey, do you want to take a walk?” but it sounds like total gibberish. So you try to glean whatever you can through context, facial expressions, and hand gestures. At first it’s all exciting and fun, but then your mind starts to hurt. You crave your own language. You want someone to throw you a lifeline — to phone a friend or even ask a stranger — just to hear people speaking in your own tongue. When it starts to feel overwhelming, you find yourself retreating to a place of familiarity in your brain, where everyone knows how to say your name the way you’ve always heard it.
But over time, certain words and phrases become familiar again. You realize that every night before dinner, you are sent to the bathroom with a gesture of ringing your hands together. Eventually you piece together those hand motions with the words “wash” and “hands.” The tricky part is that you’re really learning two things at once: another language AND another culture. Your new family is adopting you, while you adopt the way they speak and the way they function.
It’s a process, all this transition business. Like that food processor full of languages in my head, international adoption messes with a child’s brain. I know there is debate in many circles about whether it does more harm than good. However, after watching over a dozen adoptions in the past year, I have no regrets — at least not for these kids. I’ve watched children be saved from horrific abuse, total poverty, and absolute neglect. I’ve witnessed their lives being redeemed, as they experience unconditional love and acceptance for the first time in their lives, not to mention full bellies, beds and pillows, and schools with textbooks and technology. I’ve recognized that, for these children, none of those benefits were being realized in their home country.
Are there challenges along the way? Of course. The most basic need for most of us is to be understood. It may take months, if not years, for these kids to be able to express themselves and, as a result, accurately understood. But it can — and does, thankfully — happen… eventually. So when you meet a family like this (or hear about one, maybe through me? :)), at various stages of understanding, would you offer some prayers of encouragement and grace? Who knows, those might be just what is needed for that person or family to make it through one more day in their food processor of transition.
[This was originally posted at wendywillard.com on January 7, 2014.]
If you’re interested in learning Spanish, I’d like to suggest my favorite learning method: personal, one-to-one, online tutoring through Virtual Lingos. The best part is that you’re helping employ Nicaraguans in the process!