Communication is an acquired skill

By Julie LaBelle

Julie is studying with API in the Spanish Language and Humanities Program at the University of Seville. Julie is also participating in the API/MatadorU travel writing program. The post below is one of her essays from that project.

Julie and other API students at the Alcazar in Seville

“Do you go in this trashcan or in the other one?”

Yeah, I said that to someone. Volunteering at a nursing home on a particularly busy day in Sevilla, Spain, I turned to another volunteer, an older Spanish woman, and asked her in all seriousness which trashcan she belonged in.

I am an exchange student.

You’ve gotta understand- in Spanish, one little slip of an s-“va” =it goes, versus “vas” =you go- and you’re talking about a person, not a napkin. I didn’t even realize what I had said until María Jesús, an older volunteer, started laughing! ¡Qué horror! At that point, I was so confused and embarrassed that I didn’t even know what to say.

I wish I could tell you that only happened once, but in truth, mistakes like this happen to me almost everyday. If I’m not saying it incorrectly, I’m usually understanding it incorrectly.

Last night, my host mom asked me what I had for lunch in Granada. My response: Sí!

Again, I was clued into my mistake by fits of laughter, this time by my roommate.

The other day, I went to meet the campus minister, ended up sitting down in an office full of people, only to realize that I had actually interrupted their meeting. Did I have any idea that he was subtly and politely asking me to come another time? Not a clue.

Such is the life of a language learner.

Not going to lie, it’s really humbling. I am reduced to only speak with my reduced knowledge of vocabulary. I can’t understand jokes, sarcasm, metaphors. I can’t even tell if someone is addressing me on the streets unless they physically touch me or say “HOLA!” very obviously.

I never realized how important communication was to me until now that it is so limited.

Of course, there’s a lot to take from an experience like this. For one, I have to be as patient with myself as others are with me. Learning a language is like getting to know someone. It takes time. I can’t expect to know everything in the first two weeks.

Second, it’s important to have a good sense of humor. Remember the lady I said should go in a trashcan? We worked together again the other day, and I attempted to use a Spanish phrase in small talk (saying that my drying rag was “as wet as soup”). I probably said it wrong, because she started laughing at me. Instead of getting embarrassed, I just laughed right along with her. Now, I’m pretty sure we’re BFFL’s. Pretty sure.

Finally, I’ve learned the power of non-verbal communication. I may not always be able to understand what a Spaniard is saying, and vise-versa, but I know the language of kindness and welcome. Smiles, touches of affection, laughing (I mean, don’t just burst into a fit of laughter for no reason… you know what I mean) – these communicate far more than my broken phrases and limited vocabulary can.

So, until I am better acquainted with Spanish, I will turn to my dear old friend- Love- to say the rest.

Julie in Toledo

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