The Unexpected Rewards of Incompetence
My old thesaurus describes someone who is fluent as articulate, effortless, easy, eloquent, glib, natural, quick, ready, silver-tongued, and smooth. I have to laugh as I read these words, for they certainly do not describe me. At one time, I might have hoped to be characterized as any one of these things, but not now. As a lifelong reader and writer, I thought acquiring a second language – even later in life – would not be difficult for a clever person like me. Wow Que Chiste!….???????
On a recent trip to Argentina, my self image was challenged in ways that astonished me. As my teenage sons rolled their “R”s and reveled in the discovery of new slang words, I struggled with the very basic elements of Spanish language. Not being fluent in Spanish meant that I could not engage in both casual and deep conversation with new friends. I couldn’t read a local newspaper or waltz into a bookstore and find out what Argentine writers were doing. This amounted to giving up a significant part of my identity as I traveled. At times, not knowing Spanish was lonely and frustrating. My experiences were vivid, wondrous and sometimes overwhelming, and I didn’t have the vocabulary to express it. Little by little, the charm of my surroundings and the genuine kindness of so many Latin Americanos trumped any lingering doubts or discomfort I had.
As I relaxed, I began to see my limitations in a second language as amusing, often humbling and eventually, as a relief. To be sure, I had less anxiety as we made friends, and began to know the territory. But I still could not speak in complex sentences. Like a child, I acquired nouns first, and used them in one word sentences – first with trepidation and then with increasing joy. Speaking in one word sentences required that I participate in a whole different level of communication. I acted out words, I smiled and frowned, I gestured in a way that pulled me into a true fusion with my surroundings.
To not speak fluently became a surprising bonus – I spoke less and listened more. I made deep, sincere eye contact. I found that I didn’t necessarily need the words I struggled to retrieve and pronounce to be understood, I needed the human connection! Not knowing how to speak Spanish reminded me that the purpose of language is to connect human beings, it reminded me of how far I have strayed from this intention. I learned to be in the absolute now of each relationship – measuring gesture and body language rather than the complexities and nuance of every word. What a joy -! What a relief -! What an unburdening -! For a top heavy, head heavy, vocabulary laden American like me.
My daily adventures further into Argentine Culture began to awaken me to the sparkle and vitality of language once more. With my one word sentences I once again experienced the delight of word recognition, and the joy of naming the world all over again. The sound of new words began to match my experience of them; to be sad is to feel triste, something lovely is lindo. Dulce suenos our friend calls out as we go to bed – sweet dreams.
I will be forever grateful for my ignorance when I remember looking for dish soap in a market and the three Argentine women gathered around me trying to help. One touches my arm as she points, another looks deeply into my eyes with a kind of concern that I have never experienced before (was I in trouble? her eyes asked). All three of them laugh warmly when I pantomime lifting a fork from a plate, soaping it, rinsing it, and drying it off. We four women, middle aged and surely with families, know all about this. In our small group of strangers we have found something so ordinary and so common to our experience. We don’t know each others book preferences, class or professions, but we can all wash the dishes! Ah! We all say when we have understood each other, and the connection (and my gratitude) goes deeper than I could have imagined.
Am I betraying my English major, poetry-reading, literary-magazine-subscribing, wall-to-wall-bookshelf self when I say that I liked myself better without a computer, thesaurus, and all that talk? I did. Indeed, I do! I wasn’t concerned with appearing to be smart, sounding intelligent, being understood – I was enjoying the way Argentines met each other on the soul level – open, utterly liberated from the ever narrowing qualities, the boxing in, of my own language.
Upon returning to my own country, I felt an immediate sense of diminishment. The adventure of communication had suddenly shrunk. We were just talking in words. Only words. Poor, used up, empty words. Humor, love, cunning wit – those things have long vanished from our verbal transactions. When I listen to conversations around me I think, is that all??? What about the kiss we greet each other with, what about the deep eye contact which says we are human together, what about the gesture, smile and pantomime so warm and humorous, and most of all, what about the generosity that one human conveys to another without a single word? Without these, my own language seems lonely, hollow, a sorely inadequate expression of my life – the life I share with so many other people …
I am planning to return to Argentina and I know I will eventually learn how to speak passable Spanish. As my new vocabulary increases, I hope that I will not lose the magic that my incompetence now affords me. I hope that when I ask the clerk for something on the shelf behind the counter, he will not simply hand it to me and ring up my purchase. I hope the Aha moments, and the joy of learning Spanish will continue for a long time. Perhaps the world was long ago discovered and named in English, but for me there are still ways to make it new in Espanol. In Spanish, life is vida – especially for a word-weary North American like me.