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Feb '12

The humbling experience of learning a language

In my previous job as an immigration advisor at the University of North Texas, I spent many hours of most days trying to explain immigration regulations to students. Somedays, it was a struggle as I would have to explain a concept many times in many different ways until finally the student understood (or just left). This lack of understanding did not stem from a lack of intelligence–Many of the students we helped were PhD candidates and considered leaders in their field of research. The issues we faced stemmed from lack of a common language.We both were intelligent people and yet, due to this barrier, we could spend 10 minutes just trying to figure out what the question was!

I was impressed by these people who leave their native country, where they are considered an expert, and enter a country where they may struggle to have the most basic of conversations (although to be honest, many other times, my students’ english was better than mine!).  They would have to settle for being considered unintelligent by the majority of people because they had no way to express their knowledge.

I have always had the utmost respect for people brave enough to do this, but over the past month, we have developed something more: empathy.

We’ve just finished our month of Spanish Lessons and while we learned more than we ever thought imaginable, every day we are hit with the realization that we still have so much to learn.

Take for example, this little story that just happened to Aaron and I:

A lady who was doing a musical show at the Bib came into the kitchen and asked for an extension cord. Aaron tells the lady that he will look for one and heads off into a side room. We can’t seem to find one and kind of stand there awkwardly, not able to explain that we don’t have one but that we’ll find someone else to ask. Eventually she does the hand motion again and we realize that no, she’s not looking for an extension cord but rather, she was pointing at a broom standing clearly in the corner!

As we begin to communicate with people more, this is becoming a daily occurrence for us and it has been difficult to not be able to express ourselves the way we would like. We try our best to be nice but often times, even basic sentences can be hard to find in the moment, and I’m afraid we often come across rude. It’s such a different way of communicating because you can’t always explain yourself and have to accept that sometimes you can’t really help someone.

I think my sister (who has spent a lot of time living/working abroad in Latin America) summed up this feeling very well: “I was so used to being the “julie” that everyone knew, that initially it was hard introducing myself to new people who didn’t know anything about me, and couldn’t really gain that much by what I had to say, since it wasn’t much….It’s kind of interesting to have that little cultural investigation of yourself: “who am i without my language? How can I still express and show my true self without words?”

Aaron and his new buddy

Working with the kids at the Bib has been a really good way for us to work through these issues. They are so welcoming and patient with us, repeating phrases over and over again until we are finally able to help. They allow us the time to show them our personalities and thankfully, they’re drawn to that and we’re developing some great relationships. It feels like some of them are certainly teaching us more than we’re teaching them, but we’re enjoying it none the less! Aaron has a new 7 year old friend who follows him around and corrects his Spanish, which has been funny but quite appreciated!

We really enjoyed our Spanish lessons and are ready to put our new found knowledge into practice for the next couple of months. We’ll probably take more Spanish lessons later on in our trip but for now, we’re ready to humble ourselves a bit more and are getting better every day – poco a poco (little by little)!




2 comments to “The humbling experience of learning a language”

  1. Elaine Olson Says:

    Hi Abby and Aaron,
    I can relate to trying to communicate with folk when we don’t understand each other’s language. Sometimes you just have to laugh and hug and say you’re sorry. Good luck with your lesson!
    Aunt Elaine

  2. Abby Says:

    Yes, laughter is definitely universal! So good to hear from you Aunt Elaine-Love you!

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