Every day I am reminded just how difficult it is to learn a new language. Not just in terms of my own experience in learning Spanish, but primarily from my observations in the beginner’s class in which I work. At IGA (my school), teachers and students are not allowed to speak any Spanish in English courses. This is to prevent students from translating from Spanish to English in their heads which, as I know from experience, hinders fluency. It is, however, enormously difficult to explain English words in English to students who don’t speak English!
For example, last week when teaching classroom objects, the lead teacher Lis told students how to ask the questions “What’s this?” and “What’s that?” When I saw the flipchart I anticipated that this would take only a few minutes to explain, but the students had an enormous amount of difficulty understanding it. The difference between “this” and “that,” why we sometimes use “these” and “those,” and, subsequently, “is” and “are” are difficult concepts to explain to non-English speakers using only English, drawings, and physical gestures. There are exact translations in Spanish, but Lis stayed the course and mimicked this, that, these, and those until every student understood. There were also probably some catch, dice, and flyswatter activities for internalization, but that’s just part of the framework.
There are also certain sounds that non-English speakers have difficulty imitating. When teaching the alphabet, most of the students struggled to pronounce “v” and “z,” which they confused with “b” and “c.” “Yellow” and “three” are also particularly challenging words, as are the vowels, which are similar and simultaneously very different than vowels in English. I’ve also learned to answer to “Dennis” as well as a number of other variations of my name.
Yet just the other day I was reminded of just how deficient my own pronunciation in Spanish is, when a friend insisted that I practice my Spanish with him. I was beginning to say “Sometimes I get nervous of making a mistake,” but I didn’t make it any further than “a veces” before he started laughing at my terrible accent. Today people told me that my accent was endearing, but I wonder if it’s endearing in the way that a dog in a wheelchair is endearing. It’s cute but also very sad.
Despite the challenges, I am really enjoying my time in Guatemala. I love the English classes that I am in, especially the beginner’s class (where else can you make a color or shape collage with adults?) as well as my Spanish class, where I am not only improving my language but learning about Guatemalan history and culture. It’s also where I learned what a shuco is and why I should never eat one.
I have also continued to experience an enormous amount of hospitality from Guatemalans. Within a week I had several phone numbers of other people’s parents offering me assistance if I ever needed any help. One night I left a message for a friend asking her if she thought it would be safe to go to a restaurant in a certain neighborhood, and she immediately called back assuring me that it would be fine, but if I needed anything I could call at anytime. I’ve been walking through the woods, visited a granjita, played boliche, visited the National Palace and Central Park, gone to the cien puertas and even tomé un cafecito en Taco Bell. Every day brings something new: a new vocabulary word, a new food to try, a new friend, or a new place that I have to visit before I leave. ¡Qué buena suerte!