We don’t really think of ourselves this way, but Americans are isolated. The sheer size and geographical diversity available in our country affords us a wide array of places to visit or make our home. We have small towns, large cities, mountains, deserts, beaches, swamplands, and temperate rainforest. It’s possible to go skiing one weekend and spend the next in the sun and sand; all without ever crossing an international border.
We have a single official language, English. Only a small number of Americans speak anything other than that. Despite being a country of immigrants, most foreign languages are lost after a generation or two. It is rare for Americans to feel the need to leave the country in order to better their employment prospects or to receive an education. Even the languages of most Native Americans have been largely forgotten and those that haven't are spoken by very few.
Compare this to much of the rest of the world. Many countries are significantly smaller geographically than the US and are nestled close to neighbors who don’t share a common language. Inhabitants of Europe routinely travel among countries for vacations, education, and work opportunities. Learning another language is a natural part of growing up.
Even countries whose neighbors speak the same official language, contain many inhabitants who grow up speaking more than one. Where we are in Guatemala, the official language is Spanish, but many of the local Mayans grow up speaking their ancestral language as well. There are four Mayan languages around Lake Atitilan alone. Switzerland, about 1/3 the size of the state of Iowa, has 4 official languages. Most Swiss speak at least two of them.
Back home, meeting someone who is bi-lingual isn’t exactly uncommon, but its far from the norm. In our travels we meet people who speak two, three, four, or even five plus languages on a regular basis. I’m really not kidding. We actually rarely meet anyone who is only bi-lingual.
Another thing we’ve discovered travelling, is that one of those languages is almost always English. Luckily for us our language has evolved into the new lingua franca. It’s used widely in business, aviation, and science. Unluckily for us, that creates even less incentive for Americans to become multi-lingual.
In our current camp we’ve met people from France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Argentina, Holland, Lithuania, and Lichtenstein (not to mention Australia, Canada, and the UK). The language we all converse in? English. This is certainly convenient for us, but we also listen in awe as they’re able to switch between languages to suit the conversation. We’re oftentimes very conscious of the fact that, although everyone is speaking English, the only reason we’re all using it is because Taylor and I are a limiting factor.
We’re really beginning to see what a valuable tool learning another language can be. We’ve made many very good friends on the road, many of which we wouldn’t have been able to connect with so strongly if we hadn’t been able to communicate. It wasn't until we crossed the border from Mexico into Belize, that we realized how much we had been missing. Mexico, of course, is a Spanish speaking country. We’d learned to get by; order food, basic small talk, but for the most part were pretty isolated. We discounted how much the language barrier was effecting our trip until we crossed into English speaking Belize and immediately began making fast friends with the locals. We had long talks about their lives, their politics, and their home. These were important conversations that had been missing during our time in Mexico.
As you speak more languages, your ability to communicate grows exponentially. I was recently able to discuss car troubles with our French campground owner by describing parts with the Spanish words. He didn’t know the terms in English, and I didn’t know them in French, but the little Spanish I’ve learned so far helped us to build a bridge. It’s little moments like that the make me hungry to learn as much as possible.
A huge part of this trip, for me, was to have the time to study and learn as many new things as possible. We always planned to learn a bit of Spanish, if nothing else it’s the polite thing to do when you’re driving and living in Spanish speaking countries. We half-heartedly studied apps on our phones and google-translated every road sign we saw, but as the trip has carried on we’ve begun to feel like our mono-lingualism has placed us in a minority, especially among travelers.
We took a week of Spanish lessons in Mexico, but here in Guatemala we’ve really settled in, encouraged and inspired by those around us every day. For two weeks, we attended class for five hours a day, four days per week and studied for another hour or so beyond that, with homework on the weekends. We’ve taken a week-long break while our good friend Eva visits us, but will be back in class as this blog is published.
The San Marcos Spanish School, where we’re studying, is a collection of palapas spread around a beautiful green garden. The teachers and staff are bright, young, and motivated. They’re endlessly patient with us and focus on teaching us grammar and structure while encouraging conversation. Our teacher Evelin even lets Taylor and I bicker and fight, as long as it’s in Spanish.
The biggest thing we learned as we began our lessons, is how truly bad our Spanish had been. We’d cobbled phrases and words together, without really understanding where they came from our how the mechanics worked. I vaguely remembered the word “conjugation” from high school, but we were pretty dismayed to learn just how wrong we’d been and how much we still had to learn.
Taylor seems to be picking it up pretty well, she’s much more comfortable in conversation than me. She’s typically got a new concept or verb tense locked down well before I’ve got it solid in my mind. I can roll R’s like it’s my job though.
Even though we can feel a little overwhelmed at the sheer amount of information we’ve still got to learn, we’re excited each time we’re introduced to a new concept. Every new thing we’re able to learn is a new tool in our kit. We’re able to communicate just a little better every day and all the conversation we’re encouraged to use in class has really helped to build our confidence.
Just a few days ago, Taylor and Eva invited their local Tuk-tuk (3-wheeled taxi) driver out to lunch. They did something we haven’t been able to do since Belize- had a conversation with the man about his life in Guatemala, his family and his work. Eva provided the cojones to ask, but Taylor’s translating helped provide a bridge between cultures.
We plan to take another couple weeks of Spanish and we practice every day. We’re even starting to argue in Spanish at home..