Before coming to Panama I knew no Spanish… Zip, zilch, zero… NONE. I took French in high school and I hardly remember any of it so I didn’t even have that going for me. Our decision and preparations to come down were such a whirlwind that I didn’t have much time to start any kind of study to learn Spanish before we left, and oh how I wish I did!
Not being able to communicate was one of my biggest frustrations when we first settled here. My husband had a basic understanding and knowledge of Spanish and luckily could help us get by in most situations. Me however, I was lost. I often felt VERY isolated and alone. Here I was a 35 year old “well educated” woman with people all around me and I couldn’t even tell people my basic needs or wants. I couldn’t contribute to conversations, or make any Spanish speaking friends. It was like I was invisible in public.
That feeling has been a motivator for me to learn, but learning a new language is no joke. It is hard and it takes ALOT of time!
Here I am 10 months later and I still feel like I don’t know very much and haven’t been able to put as much time into learning as I would like… but, in reality when I compare where I started to where I am today, I have made a lot of progress. I can communicate basic wants and needs and I can understand much much much more than I did before. However, I did underestimate how hard it would be and how much time would be needed to REALLY learn.
There is an accent unique to this area which I can only describe as sounding like an old man without teeth who mumbles and does not pronounce “s”. So instead of hearing, “¿Cómo está?” you hear, “¿Cómotá?” Instead of, “Buenos días.” you hear, “Buendía.” It’s hard learning a new language let alone a new language from a toothless old man. ; ) Also, we are “immersed” but not really… We live in a place where the primary language is Spanish and everyone speaks it around us, however we are traveling as a family whose primary language is English. Out and about we attempt to speak Spanish and have some regular contact with native speakers, but when we get home we speak English. Most of out time is spent together so we are not truly “forced” to speak Spanish all of the time. This just means we have to try a little harder.
Danny and I were talking about how there is frustration in not being able to completely understand others, but what is MORE frustrating is, feeling like in the whole 10 months you’ve been here that no one has totally and completely understood you or your entire thought process. Things are often lost in translation.
I think about all of the people I have encountered in the United States that are trying to speak English as a second language… Have I been kind and patient as they try their best to communicate? Have I thought that they are “not intelligent” because their English sounds funny or isn’t perfect? Have I just written them off or not tried to get to know them as well because it’s not as easy to communicate? Have I thought, “They have lived here for ( x amount of time), why can they not speak English? Are they not trying?”
Being on the other side of the coin has opened my eyes. Do people think that way about me? Living in a Spanish speaking country I don’t expect people to cater to my English speaking needs, I came to a Spanish speaking country and I know that, but the moral of the story is that we all need to cut each other some slack. A little compassion, understanding and sometimes a little extra effort to understand each other pays off in the end.