Monday, July 30, 2007

Fluent in Something

For the amount of travel in which I partake, my language skills are sadly lacking. I am 89% unilingual, and do not have the Gift of Foreign Language. The Gift of Gab, yes. But in a foreign tongue? No. After attempts at French (Junior High), then Spanish (language immersion program) I can really only understand 7 French words (all nouns); and some Spanish sentences (when spoken v-e-r-y-s-l-o-w-l-y). I cannot construct and deliver my own Spanish sentences.

I had been dying to learn Spanish while in college. I didn't want to take a formal course, so I bought some tapes and would listen to them at my part-time job with the Agronomy Department on campus. It was Iowa State - Agronomy was very big there. My boss was this overstuffed, blond, beefy thing, named Mike, who fancied himself quite the looker. He was not. He was - to his credit - incredibly computer-savvy, but made certain everyone knew it. He would swagger around, poking his head next to your monitor, and say things like "heh heh - you SURE you're doing that right?" I would pretend I couldn't hear him, as I was wearing my headphones, and listening to Spanish conversations. One day he asked what I was listening to, and I stopped pretending I couldn't hear him, long enough to say "Spanish tapes". To which he sputtered "Whu, whu, what the hell for?" I just looked at him, thinking, "how many possible answers are there, REALLY, to that particular question?" He continued "I mean, why would you want to learn SPANISH? You already know ENGLISH - and that's the only language you NEED to know."

Now, I realize that Ames, Iowa is not a booming, international metropolis. However, I have higher expectations for people's intellect, in an educational setting (read 'Any College Town'), and was foolishly startled at Mike's myopic statements. When people say things that absolutely baffle me, I can never respond with anything other than an incredulous stare. That's what Mike got. Incredulous Stare. I don't think he understood that, anymore than he would understand Spanish. "Incredulous Stare" in Spanish is "mirada fija incrédula".

Fast forward several years later, and I decided to go to Central and South America to do a language program, and learn me some Spanish. I started with a 4 week program in Alajuela, Costa Rica, living with my spunky little homestay maman, Irene, and her messy toddler, Daniel.

Irene was always yelling "DanIEL, tranQUILA" at him when he was having temper tantrums, so that was a useful phrase that I picked up. I can now say "Simma DOWN now" in three languages.

My Spanish was so non-existent, that I had to spend Day 1 learning the Spanish alphabet. So when I would come home from escuela, Irene would welcome me with a big smile and a "Como le fue?!" To which I would shrug and give a pursed-lip smile. I had absolutely no idea what she was saying, even though it should have occured to me that it was precisely the same thing my mom had said - in English - when I'd come home from school "How'd it go?" I figured it out eventually.

Irene was vastly patient with me, and would speak s-l-o-w-l-y and do plenty of pantomime, and we got along quite well. She was very concerned with my nutrition, and I had been clear that I was a vegetarian. I was a 'traveling vegetarian', as some of the meats I had seen on my trips did not appear fit for consumption, and I figured it was just a safe way to go. One day, Irene was cooking up some pescado (we learned food items that first week), and for some reason, she really wanted me to have some. She seemed very emphatic in her excited sentences, and welcoming arm/hand gestures. She was so sweet to me, that I felt it would be rude not to try the fish, so I said "OK" ("ok" can be Spanish too).

One hour later, I was locked in the bathroom, spasmodically heaving over the commode. Vomiting in someone's home is humiliating enough, without the added embarrassment of knowing your host was attempting to have a special date with her boyfriend, in the next room.

Whatever your language of choice: Spanish, English, Klingon...nothing kills the mood like the sound of barfing. It's a universal language. And that night, I was fluent.