Story last updated at 4/16/2014 - 4:16 pm
It's a bit embarrassing to admit that after 16 months in Latin America, I'm still thoroughly confused by the Spanish language. I cannot speak, hear, or even read Spanish fluently. Not even close. I've put a decent amount of effort into studying the language and seeking out practice along the way, but apparently it hasn't been enough.
I have my excuses. When we crossed the border of Mexico two Decembers ago, I had nothing but the basics to guide my first attempts at Español. Tambien (also), the immersion factor has been less than legitimate. Traveling with friends is great, but at the end of the day it ensures we end up speaking more English than Spanish. It's just so much more enjoyable to socialize when we can all use and abuse a familiar language.
It doesn't help that we are constantly crossing borders. Every country has its own dialects, accents and terminology. Each time we figure out the new rules, it's not long before we find ourselves somewhere where they don't apply.
I was feeling pretty solid on my Spanish progression back in Bolivia. I connected with a handful of friendly locals and was able to have a couple long, smooth conversations. I felt I was on the verge of a breakthrough to the next level.
Then we crossed into Argentina and got thrown onto a linguistic ice patch without crampons. Suddenly anything that even remotely had the "yu-" sound in "yuck" was now the "-ge" sound in "beige". Add to this a tendency to speak without ever closing the mouth, a boatload of new words for the same things, and a culture striving for independent identity that just has to do everything differently from the rest of South America. Argentina took some time to get used to, but after about a month and a half we were somewhat adjusted. At least we could remember how to pronounce most of the words correctly.
Chile was a whole new ball game, and we got slammed. In Chile, people speak ridiculously fast and don't enunciate. All the words run together, and trying to pick out clues about what is being said becomes incredibly difficult. Sometimes my head throbbed from trying to decipher simple directions. I was sure my ear canals were wrapping around my brain.
Like Argentina, pride for a unique national identity seems to also be a common theme in Chile. The locals we meet love to hear how difficult it is for us to learn their dialect. A big part of the culture is rooted in the secret code that the citizens have with each other, a code that even Spaniards have trouble solving.
The first key to the code lies in the breadth of slang that Chileans use when they speak. These terms are specific words that have no connection to their literal meaning. For example, the word "cabra" literally means "goat", but in Chile it means "child". The only way to understand new slang is to learn it from someone who already knows what it means and can translate it.
We were very fortunate to meet Billy, a Connecticut kid living in the coastal city of Valparaiso, within our first couple days in Chile. He gave us a list of "Chilenismos" and their English translations. After some diligent studying, it soon became apparent how much of regular Chilean conversation is comprised of slang terminology. It was almost as if every other word we heard someone say was on Billy┐s list.
These words were fun to learn and easy to use, but it was a bit depressing to feel so primary again. After "harto pique" (much distance) traveling and trying to figure out this language, we were back to the basics again. And it wasn't only that I didn't understand the locals speaking to me. I would say the same things I've been saying clearly and slowly for months, and suddenly no one knew what I was talking about. I'd stumble over words and phrases that used to be easy, unsure if I was being heard right. Chile was becoming a real confidence killer.
Two months deep into Chile, around the port city of Puerto Montt, I got really annoyed with the communication breakdown. Running simple errands became a challenge when I could only understand a third of the words I heard. There in the capital of the scenic Lakes District, and jumping off point for national parks to the south, I found myself developing a hostile tone, rudely trying to just get the point across. The headache built and eventually I tried to avoid interactions. It was not a healthy way to learn.
At the peak of this linguistic depression, I met Xavier. Originally from France but now living in Chile, he invited us to stay at his house on the north end of Chiloé Island. Xavier is a language wizard, fluent in French, Spanish and English. He understands German, Persian and Malasy, and even knows enough Bahasa Malayu (an indigenous language in Malaysia) to get around. The complex layers of languages in this guy's brain piqued my curiosity.
I asked Xavier how he kept track of it all. He said that the key to learning languages was about separating perception from labeling. And that it's a process of identifying something with a mental image, rather than an abstract title. For example, if he wanted to speak English, he would learn the word for "boat" by connecting the sound to a mental image of a boat, or "love" to a mental image of a hug. I found this technique a beautiful way of seeing the world, imagining things for what they are, rather than what they are called.
I would love to get to that level with language learning, but I don't know if my mind has the foundation to support that much capacity. To dedicate the time to create that kind of perceptive infrastructure would be quite the commitment. But I'm inspired to try.
It was great to spend time with Xavier, because he could relate to our difficulties with Chilean Español. He told me about first learning English in India, where everyone speaks the language of the late colonizing empire. His travels then took him to Australia, another place of harsh accents and slang. One could imagine the confused looks that the locals gave him when they met the caucasian European speaking like Apu from The Simpsons. And I'm sure that Xavier was equally confused when trying to understand them. It was a feeling that I know all too well by now.
Our days with Xavier were confidence boosters, and I left feeling much better. With a house full of Chileans, we made the local specialty meal called Curanto, a traditional dish that originated with the Chilote people of the island.
This absolute feast of choros (mussels) made enough food for two days and gave plenty of opportunities for group conversations in the kitchen and at the dining table.
Perhaps our new local friends subconsciously slowed down their speech for us, knowing that we were trying to understand. But even if it was intentional, it felt good to be able to follow along and participate in the dialogues. Maybe I was improving after all.
Fluency in Spanish is a lofty goal I'm not sure I┐ll ever obtain. But I'd like to keep working towards it. Trying to figure out a language is a fun process, and even if some factors can┐t be remedied right now, attitude and intentions make a big difference. As long as I keep trying, I don┐t have much to lose. Cachai, choro? (Got it, dude?)
In 2012, Juneau residents Andrew Flansaas, Christopher Hinkley, Colin Flynn, Kanaan Bausler and Max Stransley began a two-year adventure: paddling to Vancouver Island and biking to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. They chronicle their adventures at www.atripsouth.com and occasionally contribute dispatches to the Juneau Empire and Capital City Weekly.