Aug 22, 2013

When words fail: Language and Connection in South America

I knew that the language was going to play a part in my South America experience but didn't predict it to be so pivotal. Most of the quotes I've collected in conversation have been on the topic of language. I've felt isolated with the language barrier before (Solo in Sevilla) and been the odd one out living with bilinguals (a month with Brasilians in Porto) but this feels different.

I'm sure most Westerners would have experienced some disconnect whilst traveling. When you're passing through, one can always manage with commonsense and body language. It only dawned on me upon arrival that South America is the only continent where English isn't the primary bridge language.

The hostels I've stayed at have mostly been occupied by regional and interstate travelers. Its great in some sense because it forces you to interact in Spanish but offers no reprieve if you just want to relate to someone after a day spent being mute in an alien place.

VIDEO: 'Waking Life' (2001) "Words are inert"  
Waking Life (2001)
KIM KRIZAN: Because words are inert. They’re just symbols. They’re dead. You know? And so much of our experience is intangible...
The litte Spanish I know has largely been through 6 weeks of immersion. I've found the best way for me to learn is through necessity, a sense of survival. For some reason the thought of studying turns it into a chore but converting it into a story or discovering things organically seems more interesting somehow. Its a quirk in my wiring.

I've only taken two formal lessons thus far. The first was in a Casa of Creatives in Valparaiso, Chile. I had dinner with the 'Lab 00' collective a few nights previous after a recommendation through a CouchSurfing connection. My second lesson was through Expanish in Buenos Aries, Argentina. I found a flyer in my hostel and was intrigued by the complimentary Crash Course for the first of 5 mini modules. The place offered several packages to cater for the different needs and time constraints of Students. From people who required Spanish for Business or wanted a more immersive Argentinian experience, learning the language whilst perhaps taking Tango lessons and staying with a host family. The school offered a space not only for studying, it aimed to foster a community to better integrate oneself in Buenos Aries.

In case you're wondering how my language is progressing. The night after my lesson, I explained this Simpsons gag to a guapa who spoke no English. Incentive goes a long way ;)

"Psiquiatra infantil: ¿Dónde amigos imaginarios vienen a morir"
In no way did I do a direct translation but I feel I got it across
Ultimately language is about relating to people. Sharing a common language isn't what unites us, its a shared philosophy on life, taste and references. I'd previously only thought about the language barrier through the prism of being understood - ordering meals, getting around or sharing a story. As I've been forced to become even more observant and a better listener, I now see language as a way to better understand.

Find my other related posts here:
 - "The most important things are the hardest to say". The trouble with language 
- A question answered with a quote: South America edition
- Pete Holmes on "getting into it" - People watching, connecting and conversations

1 comment:

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