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Sunday, 28 February 2010

Learning a Language: The Foreign Family Vacation, aka Trial by Fire - Page 2

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Learning a language is never easy. One’s head gets filled with foreign words and sounds, some of which are correct and others which are just nonsensical noise. The challenge of language acquisition is even more exacerbated in times of stress. I just spent the past four days in San Andres, Colombia putting myself through the most difficult of tests--a vacation with my Peruvian girlfriend’s family.


Even the resorts, however, are not blocked off from the social and racial hierarchies that persist in Latin America. Upon arrival at the resort, my first spoken thought to my girlfriend was, “Wow, there’s a lot of gringos (a term once used for Americans, but now for all Western people) here!” As I started to explore a little bit more I started to realize that all the “gringos” were speaking crystal clear Spanish.

In the age of Spanish Colonial Rule there was a strict racial hierarchy. Peninsulares (those born in Spain) were the top dogs followed by Creoles (pure bread Europeans born in the ‘New World’), then it was the Mestizos and Mulattos (those of mixed European and Indigenous or African blood), the Blacks, and finally the Indigenous people. Today most disregard that racial divide as a thing of the past, but it really does only take looking at a Latin American shopping mall or an all-inclusive resort to see that it is, to this day, still the white people who have the lion’s share of the monetary wealth. The racial divide is still intact, even if we don’t talk about a subject that seems to have become off limits.

As I settle myself into my foreign family vacation I start to realize how good at faking fluency I’ve become. I learned quite quickly that the tone of someone’s speech can describe what type of avoidance response should follow. The stress of a sentence offers me clues of whether I should answer with a si, a “claro” (of course), or a “no, que pena” (too bad) or if the sentence requires a more constructive response. The goal for the uncomfortable is to avoid strict engagement but not to appear mute.

In any case, as the vacation proceeds and the typical ‘in-law’ family tensions begin to fade, we all start to realize that regardless of place of birth or language, good people are good people. And to see that, it doesn’t always take an exchange of properly constructed verbal language.

© Brendan van Son

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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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