Language - 5 Years (Section 4)

It would be a mistake to reflect on our cross-cultural learning experience without mentioning the critical role of language in culture. The interplay between language and culture is often subtle, but occasionally we see evidence of the strong correlation. Jokes often famously fail to translate well across languages – Monty Python humor and the jokes of Kung Fu movies come to mind. It’s not that the words are unfamiliar or unintelligible, they just often fail to strike a chord. Like looking at the face of a CGI human face that falls in the uncanny valley. To directly translate words without really understanding the social context often does little more than communicate the basic elements of a conversation while leaving it devoid of meaningful emotion. The true implications of a conversation come when squarely-placed in local context and culture.

When we learn to not only speak a language, but to understand the marriage of language and culture, our relationships with our brothers and sisters of different cultures are enriched exponentially. We begin to not only receive information, but absorb unspoken words and hidden meanings. When I talk about biscuits and sausage gravy, my subconscious mind is silently-filled with memories of well-fed Saturday mornings that kicked off a summer’s day of fishing with my brother. A rich tapestry of flavors, feelings, smells, and sensations back up the simple words “biscuits and gravy.” I have discovered that those outside of my native Appalachian culture do not always share my appreciation of those words. I say “biscuits and gravy” – they hear “lumpy bread smeared in cardiac death lard.” Each of us react viscerally to our understanding of what those words represent. I salivate; they recoil.

For me, one of the best examples of this phenomenon in the Honduran context has been the machete. Like most U.S. of Americans, the machete in my mind was at best a jungle-man, trail-clearing accessory and at worst a murder weapon. When I first traveled to Honduras, my mind continued to carry that unspoken definition. Rural Honduran culture views the machete as a necessary appliance for rural living, as useful as any washing machine, blender or lawnmower. When the unacquainted mind beholds the resulting ubiquitous presence of machetes, it instinctively computes the abundance as an indication of a culture full of BUSH-WHACKING, BLOODTHIRSTY SAVAGES. We incorrectly interpret the presence the item and its assumed application through our cultural lens, not through the local one. As a result, every conversation surrounding the use of a machete begins from a dramatically different starting point. Only when my understanding of what a machete truly IS for a local can I understand what the word really means and represents for a local. I say machete, I think sharp, dangerous tool/weapon. My neighbor says machete, he thinks companion, livelihood, work, security, and even masculine identity. Until that simple understanding is reconciled and internalized, no conversation surrounding a machete will ever be truly productive or even accurate – even though the correct words and being transmitted and received.

As a result of this intrinsic link between language and culture, it is critical to always recognize where one is the language comprehension process so that we can accurately gauge how well we are understanding our host culture. My own language learning process might be best summarized in the following way.

For the first few months. I was simply trying to survive - to figure out where things went and when to use what words and expressions. Conversations were like a word search puzzle. I was simply excited to find a word and recognize it. My simple vocalizations were equivalent to a two- or three- year old trying to just get out words that were recognizable and in roughly the right order in an attempt to communicate a simple thought. I remember being exhausted by 5-minute conversations. At night, I would drop into bed, having run the equivalent of a language marathon only to discover that in my dreams I had another 10 miles to go with all of the Honduran talking heads. Trips to the store were stressful, and the bank teller seemed to me as the grim reaper. My ability to understand was the equivalent of seeing words scrawled here and there on the sidewalk as I quickly ran over top of them.

At around a year or so, my mouth began to outrun my ears (a problem that seems to plague us as a species in any context). My vocabulary and basic grammar allowed me to fabricate workable sentences, albeit with frequent mistakes of varying, and frequently-embarrassing, degrees. However, my apparent comfort with the language often overly-reassured my conversational partner into believing I had a greater mastery of the language than I truly did. As a result, I was frequently left in the grammatical dust of conversations as things that “might have one day been” or “had persistently been” became unintelligible. It was a time of intense frustration and feeling like I had taken a step backwards. However, in day-to-day operational life, I slowly began to be able to function. The fruit market no longer required the steeling of manly fortitude, although the bank still seemed like the gallows. This period was dominated by the feeling of being a kindergartener at an aerospace engineering convention. Everything was great as long as we talked about colors, fruit, and how my day went.

After a couple of years, significant vocabulary and grammatical headway had been made. Sympathetic comments by locals about “how hard I was trying” slowly diminished. Friends and regular acquaintances began to regularly interpret what I was trying to say with some degree of accuracy Their voices and syntax had also gradually become familiar and comfortable to me. Meetings with politicians and professionals were still quite intimidating, but for the most part I was able to hang in with semi-technical conversations and communicate some complex ideas myself – albeit in a garbled and heavily-accented manner. During this time, I began to acquire a great deal of colloquialisms that haunt my speech until this day. Many of these phrases and expressions have become second nature to me at this point, but at the time I was unaware that I was absorbing them. Unfortunately, most of them peg me as a Honduran Hilljack, but in my circles that is usually to my advantage.

Looking back, I think that the 2-3 year mark was a time of immense language absorption. Many phrases that I learned in that time I use on a regular and instinctive basis, yet other words learned then but rarely-used are automatically available without hesitation. I did not realize it at the time, but it was as if the chamois had been moistened over the first couple of years and now it was soaking up advanced vocabulary and more complex tenses within the grammar.

Towards the end of this period, I began to quietly think that I had really arrived. My social interactions had eased and become quite fluid. Professional duties became more natural. Trips to purchase necessities did not require great mental exertion. To a certain extent, my language skills in the strict sense of syntax and grammar were fairly-sharp after three years. A distinct accent remained, and strange phrasing and simple mistakes persisted, however infrequently. From even quick interactions, people were able to determine that I had spent a good deal of time in the area, and many immediately knew that I had learned the language locally due to my distinctive usage of certain vocabulary. Despite this level of seeming proficiency and fluency, my language-usage was most-likely comparable to someone sending quick e-mails or text messages. The information was definitely being received, understood, and replied to from both sides. However, in the same way, there was always a certain level of underlying emotional uncertainty that not even the occasional smiley :) or wink ;) could alleviate. I was getting the language, but still missing parts of the culture and subtext.

After five years in Honduras, what once seemed impossible and exhausting has become a natural facet of everyday life. Conversations with friends and unknown acquaintances are now equally effortless without the need for auxiliary brainpower – even the occasional linguistic work-arounds come naturally at this point. Often I will think back about a conversation or e-mail and am unable to remember the language in which it was held. Unfamiliar words gradually became distinct mental constructs that build the Honduran world in which we exist. It has become difficult for me to describe many aspects of daily life in Honduras without wanting to use Spanish. Talking about our life and work in Honduras often seems like eating a square pizza with no toppings – it’s alright, just lacking those defining characteristics that bring it to life.

In our language learning, we have walked the road from toddler’s remarks, to small child, to text messages, to e-mails, to face-to-face conversations, and our relationships have deepened accordingly. The longer we spend with local objects and words, the more that each word takes on a personality of its own – a personality often quite distinct from what we would assign it in our native tongue. At five years of cross-cultural immersion in a Spanish-speaking country now, I cannot say that I am perfectly-fluent or ever will be, as the concept is as fluid as the term itself. I am also unable to say that we have perfectly-understood and acquired the culture. However, I do believe that the longer we live in the culture and recognize its subtleties, the more we are able to appreciate and utilize the language to its full potential.

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