My teachers always taught me that to learn a topic, you should read and study. Which was good, because I always enjoyed reading and was nerd enough to spend more hours studying than the average student. Unfortunately, learning a language is not that simple. I took many Spanish classes before coming to Panama, both in high school and college, and even spent a few weeks in Spain with students from my university (we mostly spoke English). But after all that, I still struggle speaking Spanish. Because to learn a language, you can’t just study. You have to dive in.
It’s like having a dance recital. But instead of learning how to do the dance before you perform it, you’re going to learn the dance when you’re on stage – from the audience. They’ll all be doing the dance, because they know how to do it and have been doing it their whole life, and you have to follow along and learn from them, while on stage, with everyone looking at you. And you’re going to look like a complete moron, but that’s how you’re going to learn. In short, it’s madness.
Of course, there are benefits to still being in the maddening process of learning Spanish. For one, sometimes I can get out of awkward conversations by pretending I don’t understand what they’re talking about (and many times I actually don’t have any idea what they’re talking about). But the greatest benefit of sounding like a moron on a daily basis and making lots of stupid language mistakes is that it makes people laugh and everyone likes laughing, so you instantly become a helpless but loveable friend.
Fortunately or unfortunately, I have quite the list of stupid language mistakes. I’ve confused harina with arena countless times, which is the important difference between asking for food made from flour instead of sand (Yes, I once asked for sand tortillas, much to the amusement of the store attendant). I’ve said sopa (soup) instead of sapo (toad) – “Hey, you got a couple soups sitting outside your house!” And of course there is the legend story – the one that has now been told in places outside of my community – about the time I asked my host mom why the group of Evangelicals was so worried about dirty fish (pescados sucios) throughout the land when in fact they were talking about dirty sins (pecados sucios).
So yeah, I’m still learning, and sometimes the going is tough. There are days when I feel like I’m starting to get the hang of it, and then other days when I realize the four-year-old understood more of the conversation than I did. Which is how, when learning a language, you come to feel like a four-year-old again. It can be a pleasant, liberating feeling sometimes, like when someone who is feeding you dumbs down their speech so you can be sure to understand it (Here. Food. Eat. Spoon.). And sometimes it’s just comical, like when a couple kids mistake your lack of language with lack of general knowledge and try to explain to you what a mosquito is and how it bites you.
And being an honorary four-year-old has a huge benefit – it’s gives you an immediate connection to kids. In some ways, Peace Corps volunteers are just bigger kids with accents. We’re learning too – many times right along with the kids. We’re learning the language and having basic conversations to practice it (It is hot today. The sun is strong. Look! A soup! I mean toad.) And sometimes we just don’t have a clue what’s going on, like when adults are talking politics in rapid fire Spanish so we go off to play hide and go seek with the second graders.
The thing is, learning a language is hard. You have to go back to being a four-year-old: okay with being silly, making mistakes, and sometimes talking in basic phrases and sentences. You have to ditch the books for conversation, knowing you’re probably going to say something that will make everyone laugh at you, and it’s easiest if you laugh along with them. And above all, you have to jump out there – on stage in front of everyone and just start dancing. But if you get tired you can always just go play uno with the four-year-olds.
And now, for your amusement, a typical conversation for me (in Spanish). Enjoy.
HCN (Host Country National): So, how’s it going? Do you like it here?
Me: Yes, I love it! This community is very caring.
HCN: Yes, the community is caring. And you don’t need to worry about security, there are no problems here. There are problems in Panama City of course and in Chiriquí, that’s where all the drugs are because it is on the border of Costa Rica and there are a lot of drugs going to the United States. The United States and Panama have a good relationship though, you know, there was a treaty between Jimmy Carter and Torrijos that gave the canal to Panama on December 31, 1999. And the Canal is really a great asset for Panama, it brings in a lot of money. Although right now the economy is down. But the Canal is still important. And Panama has a lot of other things too, we are a country rich in resources. Of course, there is a lot of agriculture in Panama, especially in Chiriquí. We have a lot of important agricultural exports. And the community here has a lot of agriculture too, most of our community members are farmers, and they plant corn, yucca, name, just to name a few. Of course, we also have a lot of tropical fruits like, papaya, mango, bananas. So yeah, Panama is a pretty special country and you’re in a great community.
(Slight pause while HCN waits for an intelligent response.)
Me: … I like mangos.
Or that’s how I imagine it anyways. I don’t know, I only caught the word “mango.”