It’s not easy
being thrown into a situation where all of a sudden, you cannot comprehend
anything. You are submerged into a new environment, a new culture, and a new
language, and you are completely lost.
My whole life, I
had constantly been in an English-speaking environment. Even if every person
has their own American accent, I had been able to understand and converse with
them. I had always been ordinary—speaking the native language and such. I’d
always fit in, always blended into the normality of my surroundings.
All of a sudden, I
was on the outside. The core thing that was needed to communicate, common
language, was something that I did not share with the Nicaraguans around me.
I looked to my
left into the face of a young child. “Por favor, señorita, ¿tiene dinero?” he
begged. I shook my head numbly, unable to comprehend the words to explain to
this poor boy that I was not allowed to provide him with money. I kept walking.
A man began
shouting at me from my right, speaking so fast that I had no way to even get an
idea of what he was saying to me. He kept repeating it, and he began to sound
“¿Por qué se
mueven tan lento, poco chica blanca!” he said rapidly.
siento, señor. I’m from America y no hablo ingles,” I said to him very slowly,
in the best accent that I could muster.
Tú no hablas español?”
“Lo siento, pero I
have no idea what you are saying,” I replied.
“Me acaba de
entregar su bolsa, ¿de acuerdo?”
“¡Tu bulsa!” he
shouted angrily, motioning to my bag.
“Oh, here. Sorry.”
I said as I handed it to him and he put it on the bus.
he muttered, walking away.
All of a sudden, I
was different. I stood out. I didn’t speak the language, and therefore, I felt
like I didn’t belong. I was an outsider.
lost in terms of language was a new feeling to me. In my house and school, I
spoke English. Everywhere I went, I spoke English with those around me and
could communicate easily. I never felt on the outside because I spoke a
different language than everyone else.
Not only did I
speak English everywhere, I have always been confident in the way that I speak English. I never had a
lisp or a stutter. I can formulate sentences and express my thoughts accurately
and thoroughly. I speak properly to teachers, my family and my friends. I speak
what is defined as “standard English”.
And suddenly, it’s
like that was all tossed in the trash. I could not formulate Spanish sentences
or think of the right words to express how I was feeling. When I did speak, it
was slow, with lots of stops and starts. It was anything but smooth, and it was
anything but what I was used to.
In “If Black English Isn’t A Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” by James
Baldwin, he writes, “Language, incontestably, reveals the speaker.” I found
this to be very true through my experience. My lack of fluidity of the Spanish
language revealed something about me—I was a “gringo”.
At this point in
time, I spoke very little Spanish and could not follow a normal conversation. In
an essay entitled “Hunger of Memory” by Richard Rodriguez, he writes, “My words
could not stretch far enough to form complete thoughts. And the words I did
speak I didn’t know well enough to make into distinct sounds.” To me, this
quote is extremely relevant and describes how I was feeling in Nicaragua. I
knew exactly what I wanted to say, but I did not have the vocabulary to put it
into complete sentences. I could not convey my point, and that was beyond
frustrating to me.
After I was in
Nicaragua for a couple days, I began to think about the experiences that I had
with native Spanish speakers. When I was unable to understand them, I felt
embarrassed. I felt like I stood out. I felt like I didn’t belong there because
I could not communicate with those around me.
In “How to Tame a
Wild Tongue”, author Gloria Anzalía writes, “There are more subtle ways that we
internalize identification, especially in the forms of images and emotions.” From
my experience in Nicaragua, I could not agree more with this statement.
There are so many
ways to communicate in this world without ever speaking a word. Sometimes, you
can gain a deep understanding with someone by simply sharing an experience with
them. Sometimes it’s not even a word. It can be eye contact. Or it could be a
smile. A nod. Language is one of the many ways that you can communicate with
other humans, but sometimes you create more special bonds when no words are
spoken at all.
By the time I
boarded the plane back home from Nicaragua, I was at peace with the fact that
the entire week, I was seen as an outsider. While there, I realized that even
though I did not speak the same language as them, we shared experiences and feelings
that bonded us in a way language never could.