Or: Why I didn’t learn to speak spanish in Costa Rica
While I spent a month in Central America, I can not yet speak spanish. Learning by immersion is the best way to absorb and speak a language. However, there are several reasons for my stunted skills en español. The first one being lack of time to study before I left—less than six months between the time plans were made and departure date.
My feeble attempt to teach myself with a few audio resources, a dictionary and a workbook failed to produce adequate results. Added to an already stressful personal life, I also ran two full marathons and moved across town all in a matter of seven days in the fall. An amazing accomplishment for sure, but it set me backwards from learning another language.
In Costa Rica, aside from the fact that I fulfilled many roles but was not enrolled in a language course, there were two major stumbling blocks to learning and understanding Spanish: the loss of hearing in my right ear and…..German. Yes, that’s right, that pesky harsh sounding language impeded my learning process. Ach!
I was aware that the tumor around my right ear canal would hinder my ability to understand people. Some days it is difficult to hear spoken english, so of course a foreign tongue would be even worse. Background noise made it near impossible at times to hear what was being said. I only wish I were clever enough to learn the words, “I don’t hear very well”.
However, I somehow managed to emerge understanding a fair amount of words and conversations. Although I was not able to participate or respond, I often had a basic idea of what was said. The process was tiring, because I strained to hear words I knew, then tried to figure out the meaning of words I didn’t know given the context, thus creating a delay between the time something was spoken to the time I decided I understood or not.
Anyway, the funnier of my stumbling blocks was my proficiency in the German language. Because my brain is used to switching readily between German and English that is where my instincts instantly jumped. It messed with my memory and occasionally I uttered half German half Spanish sentences that probably made no sense to my host family. At least we were able to gesture and smile a lot.
My favorite mishaps were these:
Counting to five became difficult when I said to myself, “uno, dos, tres, cuatro…cuatro…fünf. With my hand spread out I looked at it puzzled. No, it’s not fünf. You know, that number that comes after cuatro….After 10 seconds the data was finally accessed and I was able to say with gusto, “ahhh, cinco!” Seriously, I’ve known how to count to 10 in spanish for a long time, but the wires continually got crossed.
I also said “nee, nee” (pronounced nay) all the time, another way to say no in German, when “no” is one of those words that English and Spanish share. Really.
The mixed prhases were fun too: “Una hora ist genug”, “Ja, aber muy consado”, and just last week I responded to someone who had asked how long I’d been in Costa Rica with, “treinta Tages”, knowing with certainty that “dias” are days.
While the explanation seems funny, my perfectionist personality was at times frustrated and embarrassed. It is a difficult thing to attempt to communicate and fail, for I did not want to appear less intelligent that I know I am to be. I was afraid because too many people in the States assume that picking up the nuances of another culture and language are so easy that they impose this belief on foreigners and hold it against them when they lack the finesse of a native speaker. This attitude is magnified in Eastern Washington state where I grew up, where people write letters to the editor advocating to cease teaching Spanish in schools and that Spanish shouldn’t be spoken in “America”. Sigh.
Nevertheless, I have the skills for a solid base. When I am able to speak Spanish, the skills I picked up in Costa Rica will be valuable in the future, especially if a situation ever calls for a translator.