Saturday, April 18, 2009

So, after all this, can I even Speak Spanish?

That's the million dollar question for me these days.

The main reason I came to Guatemala was to learn to speak Spanish. And now I have only two weeks left, and I am wondering what I have learned.

It's been an interesting process, one that I thought would be easier upon arrival. After all, I grew up in Santa Fe, where one of the main roads is Paseo de Peralta and we used to sing "De Colores" in the 2nd grade. I took two years of Spanish in high school and 3 semesters in college. I mean, surely I would have a head-start, right?

But when I got here last September, I couldn't speak enough Spanish to even get around. Just renting a room, ordering and paying for a meal, or finding the right bus was stressful and confusing, because when you don't understand the language, everything is twice as hectic and strange and overwhelming.

Sometimes over the past six months I thought I would never reach a point of easy conversation, much less fluency. But then, as time passed, all of the things my first Spanish teacher in Xela told me started to ring true: the sound of the language started coming back to me, and when I needed to say something the words would come--not always just right, but at least in the right order and with a semblance of meaning.

I reached little milestones along the way--I had my first dream in which I was speaking in Spanish in early February. Then my classmates in Spanish school started asking me for the translations of words because it was faster than looking them up: "Anna, what's the word for. . .?" And I surprised myself and them by actually knowing off the top of my head, three times out of four. Then I got my first joke. And one day on the bus I started to understand what a song on the radio was about. And finally--and this is just recently--I found I could talk on the phone without going into a complete panic.

But for every milestone there has been a frustration--a miscommunication, a time when my vocabulary was incredibly insufficient and I defaulted into English, and instance after instance where I was sure I sounded like a four-year-old or a cave man.

So, when we set off on Tuesday morning for a three-day trek from Nebaj in the Department of Quiche to Todos Santos in Huehuetenango (yes, as in it's way-way out there in the middle of no where) with our guide, Juan, I was curious how well we would communicate.

Juan speaks Ixil as his first language, and Spanish as his second. The expedition consisted of just us three: Juan, Tracy, and me.

And the first afternoon, as we toiled up dusty footpaths that ascended straight up the sides of steep hills, we talked. I tried to explain the phenomenom of on-line dating; he explained what happens in his community if someone is widowed. We discussed U.S. immigration policy and Guatemalan land rights and traditional clothing and the impact of tourism on the local people.

And as I was climbing a hill, out-of-breath from exertion but fired up about whatever it was we were talking about, emphatically trying to make a point, and Tracy looked at me and said, "Man, your Spanish rocks." And then I realized that I was actually speaking in Spanish. I had forgotten. I was just speaking.

I know I am far from fluent. Pero puedo hablar bastante. And that is good enough for me, for now.

Our last day of the trek, Juan told us jokes and riddles to keep us going. Here's one for you:
Puedo correr por la dia y correr por la noche
Y no tengo que comer nada
Pero voy lejos y rapido
Quien soy?



Nikki said...

Ahem...not all of us speak spanish you know! :) Can you translate the joke?

Anna said...

I can run all day and run all night, but I don't need to eat anything. But I go far and fast. Who am I?

Do you know?

the loiterer said...

Por fin llego en un lugar donde hay internet suficient rapido para leer tu blog.
Obviamente estas un nuevo miembro del club bilingual - la respuesta a notas como la del Nikki es "Pues, hay que aprender !!!"
Me impresionaste - que te has vuelto un dicionario !!
Ademas tienes la suerte que vives en un pais lleno de latinos - aprovechate para que no olvides todo lo que has trabajado para aprender !!!