Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Bridging the Cultural Gap with Words

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Whenever I set foot in a foreign country, I try to immerse myself in the culture. I’ve learnt how to make Batik in Bali, toffee in Ecuador, and play chess in Turkey. Diverse as the languages and customs are, the one thing that binds all of the countries I’ve travelled to is this—I’ve made an effort to learn the language.

I’ll probably never be fluent in Turkish, Nepali or Indonesian, but at least I’ve learned some basics -- hello, goodbye, please, and thank you. Body language and dodgy drawings on a scrap of paper can take care of the rest. Along with a lot of smiles and nods of the head. I’ve discovered making an attempt at a country’s language can narrow the great cultural divide.

I’m often asked why I’m fluent in Spanish when I don’t have any family ties in Spanish-speaking countries (apart from some ancestors around the time of the Spanish Armada). My simple answer is Spanish comes to me naturally, and I love the lyrical quality of the words and the flowery phrases. Why wouldn’t you say, “I have thirty years” instead of “I am thirty years old”? Having thirty years (experience) just sounds so much nicer to my delicate ears. 

My first foray into immersion was in Argentina. My post on Argentine slang is here. It didn’t take me long to learn the slang and vocabulary but the grammar...oh, the grammar! That was by far the hardest part for me to get my head around. I still mess it up, and I won’t be writing speeches for the Argentine president any day soon, but I can at least hold a conversation and get my point across without causing embarrassment for either party. Unlike the early days.

Here’s an example: I had only been in Argentina a few weeks when I was invited to a friend’s mother’s house for dinner. The meal was extremely tasty, and when my friend’s mother asked me if it was “rico,” I said “no.” Her eyes bulged, mouth dropped open, and color drained from her face. I looked to my friend who spoke fluent English, and she explained the reason for my confusion. “Rico” translates to rich, and in English if a food is rich, it means that it isn’t so great (usually). “Rico” in terms of food in Spanish means it is delectably delicious. Uh oh. Luckily, my friend cleared that up quickly with her mother and from then on, everything I tasted at the mother’s house was “ricisimo!”.

This experience highlighted my need to learn the nuances of Spanish, especially Argentine Spanish which is a different animal altogether. By the time I left Argentina, I had perfected lunfardo (slang) and had a wonderfully thick Argentine accent, complete with an Italian twang. But when I moved to Peru, I found out the rest of the world didn’t share my love of Argentine Spanish. In fact, Peruvians would give me a hard time and constantly ask, “Why does a gringa (foreigner) speak with an Argentine accent?” I didn’t want to lose my accent and unique Argentine vocab--I adored it--but for the sake of being accepted in my new country, I had to change what came out of my mouth. I started saying “yama” instead of “szhama” (that’s llama, in case you’re wondering!), and eventually the Peruvians saw me in a different light. 

I adapted to Peruvian Spanish easily, picking up the slang and accent but of course, once in a while, I’d forget and add in an Argentine word here and there. This resulted in many raised eyebrows and bemused looks from the locals. And as I’d learned Spanish earlier from listening to rock bands, I have a musical lilt not unlike the women who live in Miraflores, a beach suburb of Lima, Peru. 

So with this mish-mash of slang and accents, I’ve become a source of amusement among my Spanish-speaking friends. Depending on who I am speaking to, I’m able to change my accent and word usage. In a way, I’m a chameleon of Spanish, which suits me to a tee—I’ve been a chameleon my entire life. It’s not hard for me to be a mountaineer for weeks on end then come back to civilization, shower and put on makeup and a dress and go to a swanky restaurant. 

When I moved back to an English-speaking country I was worried about losing the Spanish I’d spent years cultivating. Luckily, I have Spanish speaking friends both here and abroad and so I can practice through writing, reading and talking. It’s not the same as living in a country that speaks Spanish, but it’s enough to flex those linguistic muscles. 

The day I realised I was fluent was when I caught myself thinking in Spanish. It was a shock, but a wonderful one. Finally I could leave the house without my dictionary and it felt like a load had been lifted. These days I don’t speak Spanish on a daily basis (unfortunately), but I can switch languages at any given moment. Spanish is embedded into my brain, and into my soul. It will always be a part of me. 

Since my kids were born I’ve spoken to them in Spanish and English. They have a wide vocabulary and a passion for learning the language. We sing songs and read books in Spanish and their spongy minds soak up everything (hopefully not my shocking grammar). They can roll their r’s better than me. 

I want to encourage their learning Spanish because for me, as with other people who have learned second, third, and fourth languages, a whole new world can open up. And really, isn’t an understanding and appreciation of cultures one of the greatest gifts we can teach?

How about you? Have you ever learned another language and for what reason?


  1. You know, many people say Spanish comes naturally to them, and I can even attest to that somewhat. I never tried learning Spanish, but there was a year in my life when I travelled to 3 Spanish-speaking countries with only a pocket dictionary. By the end of the last trip I discovered I was starting to speak Spanish... Same kind of shock!

  2. Thinking in Spanish - what a gift! We were just in Mexico and it was fun to dust off my high school Spanish and made me want to immerse myself in the language even more!

  3. That's interesting, Lina. You must have a really good ear for languages.

    Kathy, I bet that trip was awesome. Did the high school Spanish come easy?

  4. Alli, I love Spanish, too, and for the same reasons as you. It's so poetic. I also think its one of those languages, like English, where you can pick up the basics fairly easily and quickly. But it's far harder to really speak it well.