As you know by now, Ryan and I traveled to Chile and Argentina over the holidays to discern whether to return to South America, and if so, where. In many ways, it was a trip down memory lane – seeing old friends, going to our old stomping grounds, and of course drinking a few pisco sours. (I would like to report that the grocery store in front of which we shared our first kiss is now a vacant storefront. Hope that’s not an omen for our marriage.)
We both hold our own in Spanish. In the US, anyway. I’m coming to realize that even the wonderful Guatemalan lady who has helped us with the kids for the past four years and “doesn’t speak any English” actually understands a LOT of English. I didn’t know that I had a habit of slipping into English when I don’t know a word in Spanish, until I got some blank stares in Argentina.
The phrase “language barrier” is actually an excellent summation of what happens when you’re learning to live in another language. The barrier isn’t just between you and native speakers – it’s in your own mind sometimes. I remember going through a particularly rough patch when I was studying Spanish in Bolivia years ago. After a session that left me in tears, my teacher patted my shoulder and said, “Don’t worry. You’re just en bloqueo (blocked).”
Even though we’re functional in the US, it’s probably going to take us a little while to get back up to speed in Chile. I encounter language barriers every day, but manage to just go around them because most people understand at least a little English. I’m not so sure those barriers are so negotiable in Chile.
Take coffee, for instance. I like cream in my coffee. So when we were in cafes, I did a direct translation and asked for “café con crema.” Got some confused looks, every once in a while was asked a clarifying question, and without fail received a drip coffee with a dollop of whipped cream on top.
Café con leche.
That’s what I wanted to order. And of course I made this mistake multiple times. So there I was, drinking my drip coffee with whipped cream, laughing at myself for messing it up again (Ryan helpfully laughed at me, too).
But I think those barriers are much more surmountable for kids. Our daughter, in the midst of play time recently, went tearing around after her brother, screaming “Cosquillas!!!” Tickles. If she wakes up before it’s time to get out of bed, she grumbles to me that the birdies stole her sleep. This is a direct translation of what our nanny tells her about getting up too early – los pajaritos te quitaron el sueño. And one of our son’s words is “nada”, of course (typically said while tossing an almost empty bowl off his high chair tray).
It’s pretty remarkable to think about how much their little brains soak up. I have a feeling we’re going to learn a lot from them over the next few years.