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Lost in translation: linguistic challenges in Chiapas

A definition of intelligence: the ability to adapt quickly to new environments.

I have never felt less adequate of this definition than last weekend as I sat for an hour in meditative silence beneath the impenetrable Spanish of my five new Mexican companions.

Despite spending around £600 and at least five hours each week on my language learning effort to prepare for this trip, my Spanish level is still little more than inebriated toddler. And that’s when I can work up the courage to speak.

Early last week in one of my rare moments of bravery I wandered into a torillaria in the beautiful city San Cristóbal where we’ve been helping our latest project. I wanted to establish whether they made tortillas with corn or flour, and therefore if I could eat them.

My questions were met with amused bafflement and I ended up abandoning the mission and leaving the shop empty handed. Elliott turned to me wearily and asked if I wanted him to try. He returned with a stack of tortillas and the news that the people inside thought I was crazy.

Elliott and I took a trip up to Palenque and Bonampak in the north of the state over last weekend with a couple of girls from our hostel and three of their friends. We had a few days off and wanted to see a bit more of Mexico before we left for Guatemala. The area is beautiful, dominated by jungle and incredible archaeological sites. There were waterfalls and monkeys and ruins and alligators and a boat and these simply incredible trees I took more pictures of than anything else… And a whole lot of Spanish.

Elliott boat

I can just about follow basic conversations, even if my contributions are restricted to single words. But a whole weekend of colloquial, rapid exchanges between a close group of friends had me utterly lost. The patience to translate evaporated quickly – and understandably. So there I was, sitting silently in a restaurant feeling isolated and stripped of at least three quarters of my IQ.

I feel terrible having to rely on Elliott all the time, whose Spanish is really rather good, no matter how modest he is about it. I wouldn’t want to annoy him by asking for every simple piece of vocabulary to be explained. I know I already cause some amount of irritation with my treatment of pieces of paper, which are either mislaid at crucial moments or folded incorrectly. Little would I want to add to this.

It’s funny how a simple lack of language skills can be so disabling. Communication is reduced to the simplest of requirements – ordering food, finding the toilet – and you really do end up feeling like a slow-mined, cumbersome sort of child, reliant on others for your most basic of needs. It restricts the types of conversations you can have, the information you can access, the situations you can face. It can mean eating a meal you know will make you sick, or waiting four hours to use a toilet just to save the embarrassment of revealing your own ignorance.

But I suppose this is the only real way to learn a language – to be thrown into situations where the knowledge becomes a necessity for survival. And this is exactly what the next few months will provide. Repeatedly.

But the experience of the weekend has made me realise that I can’t be complacent. I’ve been operating on the bare minimum over the last two weeks, too ready to rely on others, too ready to take the easy path. If I really want to learn I’ll need to work at it consciously every day.

One of my best friends, who lived in Bogota in Colombia for a long time, and speaks an impressive number of languages, gave me some great advice last week. Just learn a new sentence every day, she said. I’ve decided instead to make an effort to learn or at least make a note of fifteen new words every few days. Five nouns, five adjectives, five verbs.

Here are mine for my somewhat silent, at times embarrassing, but still enjoyable weekend:

Jungle, boat, adventure, bite, cash machine

Out-of-date, sick, beautiful, confused, drunk

To wake up, to explore, to sweat, to wait – to understand.

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