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Sunday, 28 February 2010

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

Written by Brendan van Son
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Learning a Language: The Foreign Family Vacation – aka Trial by Fire, travel columbia, San Andres, Colombia, a vacation with my Peruvian girlfriend’s family, speaking Spanish, learning Spanish, Brendan van SonLearning 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.

I forget sometimes how short a time it has been since I’ve been speaking Spanish. I took a couple university courses in Spanish, and vacationed and studied a little bit in Central America and Mexico. I’ve spent about a year and a half rigorously trying to learn the language and got to the point where when my mouth opens or I type on the computer the first words that spill out are in Spanish.

I understand things well when one person is talking to me. When pushed, however, or when I have a family of excited Peruvians laughing and chanting all at the same time, I might as well be listening to a chirping pack of hyenas as they devour their prey. I must, to others around, look like I’m having a seizure as I try to twist and turn my head to catch as much of the action as I can. There are times when everything is clear. But there are also setbacks. I remember waking up proud that I had a dream in Spanish, only to realize I didn’t understand a word I had dreamt.

Each language has its dialects and each individual person his or her own idiosyncrasies. Some people speak with a mumble, and others speak at the speed of a machine gun with a jammed trigger. In some languages, simply putting the stress on a different letter could mean the difference between ordering chicken or requesting a prostitute. An accidental one letter switch could leave you confused for two or three days. For example, when toasting me with a salud my girlfriend’s dad would toss me a “socio” meaning “partner” or “buddy.” But for the first three days of my Caribbean vacation I thought he was calling me “sucio,” meaning dirty. To be quite honest, I wasn’t sure how to take that from my girlfriends’ father.

Learning a Language: The Foreign Family Vacation – aka Trial by Fire, travel columbia, San Andres, Colombia, a vacation with my Peruvian girlfriend’s family, speaking Spanish, learning Spanish, Brendan van SonSan Andres has a similar image to that of many of the other Caribbean Islands. It offers white seashell beaches, clear turquoise blue waters, and a variety of water-related activities. Its buildings are thickly coated in bright colours of blue, yellow, and pink, which hide the effects of pounding tropical rains and humid salty sea air. The city’s history brags of a colonial past full of pirates and proxy wars fought by free-wheeling privateers.

 

 

 

Learning a Language: The Foreign Family Vacation – aka Trial by Fire, travel columbia, San Andres, Colombia, a vacation with my Peruvian girlfriend’s family, speaking Spanish, learning Spanish, Brendan van SonBut like many of the Caribbean Islands, there are two different sides to San Andres. There is the afore-described San Andres that the bourgeoning Colombian, Peruvian, and Argentinean tourists see. It’s there where tour leaders and hotel owners with grinning white teeth welcome hordes of tourists with phrases like “no worries” as they lead them off to their all-inclusive, or should we say all-protected, resorts. In the towns and back streets, however, people live in hurricane-ravaged houses under constant threat of violence. At night, while the tourists sit locked in their resorts watching a “local” stage production, the streets just blocks away are riddled with strife.

 

 


 

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

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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