Communication is key, they say. But the term “language barrier” can be tricky. There are definite moments when not knowing a word is painful and frustrating, but there are so many things humans have in common that make us truly similar, no matter which place we come from.
My first week in Ecuador was full of traveling and laughing with my friends—in English. Our tour guides spoke in Spanish, but it was just like taking a college Spanish class – not understanding everything was okay because we could just ask our director about it later.
But then came that telling Saturday afternoon when we met our host families. I sincerely felt like I was going to be sick. My heart was beating so fast because I felt that every bit of Spanish I had learned in the past three and a half years was hiding in a place in my brain that I just didn’t have the key to access. This time, it was just my host mom, two sisters, my brother, my grandma and I—no English, no director, no English-speaking friends. Just Spanish. And in full force.
After suffering through loads of words I didn’t understand and hoping and praying that I wasn’t making a fool of myself, I got through the rest of that Saturday night. Luckily—and this is where the word “barrier” doesn’t apply—we played card games. The numbers on the cards were like a friendly face since I recognized them without needing to translate them. Laughing, making funny faces and silly sounds were all around: I could understand something! Although I didn’t say much, I felt like I was a part of the game because I could relate to these funny things and I could connect with my siblings and their friends without needing words.
In my first few weeks, I tried to go to different shops by myself to practice my speaking without having an English speaker there as a crutch. Since there are so many stores in Cuenca, there were so many different opportunities to use my Spanish, and if I really messed up my speaking, I didn’t have to go back.
Although every day seems to be a game of charades, it’s helpful that hand gestures and funny noises are similar between languages. When my sisters say things in different accents, although it’s still in Spanish, I can relate because I understand the sarcasm or the joking nature of their voices.
My sisters know some English and can usually help when I’m stuck on a word, but my mom and brother just have basic knowledge of English. But this is the best part. If I wasn’t fully immersed in a Spanish-speaking household, then I wouldn’t be forced to speak as much and having English as a crutch would hinder my experience.
It can be very hard to think of things to say that are funny, exciting and different, so that my family can regard me as an interesting person—not just someone who eats lunch, asks for a clean towel or says when she’s going to be home from classes. With perseverance though, I try to share what things happened at school and what I’m learning, and I tell stories about my family and friends in the U.S. so I can try to teach my host family something about my home.
One of my big frustrations is not knowing how to describe the amazing lunches my mom cooks—I’m so more thankful than a simple “gracias” and don’t want to be repetitive with the two phrases for “that’s good” that I know. But, as my trip draws to a close, I’ve finally found some more ways to express myself and I at least always wear a smile.
The irritation that comes with learning a language can be overwhelming. There was that day that I cried in my Spanish literature class because I felt like I didn’t understand a word my professor was saying. Then there are the times when I want to say something really important, but I just can’t find the right way to say it and all words escape me.
Improvisation is hard. One day I was going to take a taxi to meet someone at their house, so I had the address written down. However, right when I was trying to say “Avenue 27,” I could not formulate the words for the number 27. I know the taxi driver must have thought I was just another tourist, but it takes such a skill to say things on the spot.
A tip to break the “barrier”: when you don’t know something, look it up right away, repeat it and then promise yourself you’ll use the word or phrase as soon as you can. I don’t always follow this rule, but it really is the best way to learn. And since not only my classes are about learning the language, but living with my host family is too, figuring out as many words as I can is so crucial. At home you want to be able to talk and express yourself, so study to live.
One weekend, I came home from an excursion with my group to an empty house. I decided to plug in my camera charger in my room and suddenly the outlet began to spark and the lights went out. I didn’t realize until I went downstairs that I had actually knocked out the power for the entire house; I started to panic. So, because I knew my speaking skills wouldn’t suffice when trying to explain what had happened, I wrote out a small speech before my family got home in order to explain what I did. My mom laughed when she saw me reading from my notebook, but it did the trick.
I’ve dreamt in Spanish where I understand the language and I’ve also dreamt where I understand nothing that’s being said—a little disconcerting when it’s your own subconscious that you don’t comprehend. In a heartbeat I would give anything to be able to think in Spanish instead of thinking first in my native language then having to translate it.
Around the sixth week into my language adventure, something started to click. I felt better at speaking and my listening abilities seemed to be a bit keener. Although I’m still not where I would like to be speaking-wise, I do feel like I’m progressing and am better than where I was nine weeks ago.
My favorite and ironic language-related incident happened a few weeks ago. My host sister told me my Spanish was getting better because I had managed some fluency when describing something that had happened that day. But, I had to ask her to repeat what she said because I didn’t understand it at first. Oh well. At least I’m working at this crazy thing called Spanish; it’s now or never.