Bilingual Adventures

Language shapes the mind, and thereby the heart and soul. The stereotypical American speaks only English and believes that everyone else in the world should, too. Who wants to be that person, standing in a market in a foreign country and shouting angrily at someone in English, just because they only speak their native language?

Three years ago, it was becoming plain that the final third of my life was not going to go as planned: my wrist was not healing from surgery as expected and my remaining days as a practicing chiropractor were numbered in the hundreds, if not the dozens. I qualified for disability coverage, and so I had a choice to make. I feel extremely fortunate to have had the chance to make that decision. It was like being a senior in high school again and having to choose a college and a major, knowing that the decision would have a huge impact on the rest of my life.  Life is a maze: you never know what is around the the next turn, and you never know if the path you choose will take you to a dead end. Books, letters, interviews, and now the internet are like having a periscope to search ahead of us in life’s labyrinth. We still don’t know what will greet us on the ground, but we can get a good idea of the general layout.

I had studied Spanish in high school and German in college. I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1970s, a time when Spanish Harlem had engulfed Columbia University, and my neighbors included lots of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans on the east (and lots of Jews on the west). Fast forward 40 years: as a buyer was found for my practice and my grown children struck out on their own, my short list of answers for the question, “What next?” was:

  1. Buy a townhome or condo in the North Carolina mountains
  2. Buy an RV and travel North America
  3. Move to Switzerland
  4. Move to Cuenca, Ecuador

For various reasons, living in the USA was looking less and less attractive to me and my husband Steve: Police abuses, at both the local and the national level, were getting more and more blatant. We were both disgusted at the way the US government is perpetuating war and violence around the world, and unwilling to be a party to it any longer. Once Steve left his state government job, with its generous taxpayer subsidy of our healthplan, the cost of medical care for our aging bodies was looming large on the horizon, and the trajectory of the “solutions” being implemented was, quite obviously, going to make matters worse instead of better.  We saw the car-centric, consumer lifestyle of the US leading us towards lethargy and an early grave. So, we knocked numbers 1 and 2 off the list.

I had used some Spanish in my practice over the years with Spanish-speaking patients. Admittedly, my vocabulary was somewhat limited: “Where does it hurt?”, “How long has it hurt you?”, “Lie down on your stomach, please,” and so forth. But I also made a little polite conversation with my patients—and they told me I had a Puerto Rican accent! My husband had been in the Spanish Honor Society in high school. My German was beyond rusty and Steve had no German. And neither of us spoke any Italian or French, so Switzerland would be a struggle linguistically.  These language realities pointed us towards Ecuador. There were many more reasons for choosing South America in general, and Cuenca, Ecuador in particular (I have already touched on those and will continue to explore those in future posts). But the language factor was a big one.

In preparation for the move, I bought a couple of novels in dual translation: I’d buy the book in Spanish and the Kindle translation in English, and read them side-by-side. One riveting one was La Guerra del Fin del Mundo (The War of the End of the World), by Mario Vargas Llosa. The plot of the book kept me turning pages, until by the end I was reading mostly the Spanish, and referring to the English version only once or twice every page or two. However, reading is not writing, and even less is it hearing or speaking.

Once we got here, I discovered that my Spanish was not so great as I had imagined. I also discovered that my Spanish-speaking patients had been very kind not to roll on the floor laughing at me.  Imagine someone saying things like, “How much time do you have that pain?” or, “Put yourself on the table, please,” and you’ll get the feel for how my communication went. I was able to make myself understood, but the way I said things was often anywhere from awkward to comical. From taxi drivers, to storekeepers, to conversations with strangers in the park, I often got smiles, and sometimes puzzled looks. One thing I appreciate here in the upland town of Cuenca: people are kind enough to correct my errors. People here are, in fact, incredibly much kinder to non-Spanish speakers than we in the USA are to non-English speakers. Perhaps it is the general pace of life here; people have time to listen and to give feedback. Perhaps it is the long, shared, multi-cultural history in this town, which only had its first passable road to the coast in the early 1960s. Perhaps it is the fact that Ecuador’s economy includes a big tourism component. I don’t know, but I know that I am grateful and humbled over and over at the helpfulness of the wonderful people here.

We enrolled in classes at a school called Si Centro, which specializes in a conversational/immersion format. Our teacher Elena was wonderful because she is a native of Cuenca, so each class was like getting together with friends who are sharing things about their homes and families and asking questions about yours. Learning bits about the music, poetry, history, and food of Cuenca and the surrounding mountains was combined with picking up vocabulary in a very natural and pleasant way.

A few people are irritated at meeting gringoes who don’t speak Spanish. One elderly gentleman we met while out walking in a park, when we first got here, asked us directions, and I told him I didn’t speak Spanish. He shook his finger at us and asked us why we came to Ecuador if we didn’t want to learn Spanish? I was set back on my heels, but I managed to stammer that we were learning, which seemed to satisfy him. Another time, we found our furnished apartment didn’t have a frying pan, so we went around to some local stores looking for one. We found a small tienda (a small family store) which had some frying pans in a display case behind the counter, where a man lounged reading a newspaper. I couldn’t remember the word for frying pan, so I said, “I want to buy one of those…” and I pointed. He looked at me levelly, and then pointedly went back to reading his newspaper.  Fortunately, I had my handy SpanishDict app on my phone: sarten! “I want to buy a frying pan!” I proudly announced, and he promptly stood up and got it out of the case for me.

Since that experience, I have not forgotten the word for frying pan. That’s an advantage to learning by immersion: experiences like that imprint the vocabulary in your mind in a way that studying a list of words never will, no matter how diligently you drill. A flash card is just a flash card, but the experience of the man’s feigned indifference, the faint embarrassment and frustration, and the triumph of finding the word and making myself understood, taking the pan home and using it to cook, all got my brain sparking in a way that made new connections. That’s how children learn language. Learning Spanish this way awakens a part of me that is buried and often not fully conscious, but it’s a remembered sensation from when I was very small. It elicits memories of my late mother, and I feel somehow closer to her than I have in years. There is a reason one’s native language is referred to as one’s mother tongue.

Learning to listen is even more important than learning to speak. South American Spanish also sounds different from Caribbean Spanish. It also has its regional accents, just as North American English does. I discovered I can pick out coastal Ecuadorians by the way they drop the last syllable of each word, and the more of them I meet, the better I get at following what they say. Many people will speak more slowly if you ask them to, and that definitely helps! Others, like my landlord’s maid who lives on the same floor as us, will speak a mile a minute; when asked to speak more slowly, she says, “Si,” and then she starts talking even faster! Watching Spanish movies with Spanish subtitles turned on helps; so does listening to Spanish music, especially slow ballads.

Indigenous Ecuadorians here in the mountain area of Cuenca are mostly cholas, and their Spanish includes a generous sprinkling of words known as Quichismos, or “Kichwa-isms,” words adopted from the native language spoken in the Andes prior to colonization. Something cold is “Achachai!” Something hot is “Ararai!” Babies are guaguas, a cat is a michiu, and there are many more.

Also common is adding the diminutive ending –ito to words. Often these words are not words you’d expect to be modified that way. One evening Steve wanted a bottle of water from a vendor in front of a theatre where we were attending a concert. She asked us if we wanted “unocito o doscito,” which threw us for a loop. What the heck was she saying? A unicycle or a dachshund? What?  Then it dawned on me: there were two of us, so she was asking if we wanted one bottle (uno > unocito) or two (dos>doscito) bottles! Again: confusion, embarrassment, followed by resolution and understanding, meaning a usage that was likely to stay with me, and a new connection sprigging forth within my middle-aged brain.

Now, it’s time to resist complacency. I can get around town, shop, use the banking system, and do what is necessary with my current Spanish proficiency. People say I don’t have a gringo accent, or a Puerto Rican one, any longer. But my ability to express more abstract concepts is still limited. I can say, “I am going to the store,” but there are expressions beyond my conjugating ability, like, “I had been going to that store for a while,” or, “If I had gone to that store, I would have bought something.” Spanish has more tenses than English, and they are not exactly equivalent once you get into expressing ideas like this. I need to put in some study, reading, listening, and speaking time. I need to be willing to make a fool of myself and sound like an idiot, or rather, like a small child, more often, so that I can learn to look into another human being’s eyes and say to them what is in my heart.

That childlike sense of exploration and wonder is part of the delicious flavor of being in this place. The joy of making connections, of going to bed at night with more knowledge and ability than I had when I got up in the morning, is an ongoing thrill. I hope it continues for a long, long time!

2 thoughts on “Bilingual Adventures

  1. I’ll be checking out Cuenca for the same reasons you did. I’ve actually already lived abroad 14 years, but at various teaching positions in Asia. I’m never even going to begin to become comfortable with an Asian Language, but my Spanish is good enough to amuse native speakers, and take care of business. I’m a bit intimidated by the hope of ever becoming fluent, but I am more than happy to put in the effort. Thanks.


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