Jan 12, 2012

Spanish: Friend to the expat in Peru

Spanish my friend?

I didn’t think so.

It was no fun for me to sit there mute while the conversation swirled around me. For me, then, the extended silences I was forced into meant that people probably did think I was a dummy. Of course when I finally opened my mouth, they would strain to understand what I was saying. Or worse: What I intended to say was completely unintelligible, and all I got was a puzzled look.

“You are a DUMMY,” I said to myself.

“It’s just that most Peruvians are too polite to say that to you.”

The next time, I thought, I’ll just keep my mouth shut and listen in silence. That way I won’t make any mistakes. I’ll just sit there like a bump on a log. No more humiliation.

Meanwhile, my thoughts were complex. I had so many things I wanted to say, so many feelings to express. Unfortunately, the words I had at my command were no better than the babblings of a two year old child.

I was dying to express myself.

Everyday events became an irritating challenge. When the phone rang, I dreaded picking it up. Sometimes I would get in a taxi and wind up in the wrong place. Or I would order food in a restaurant, and the waiter would bring something else. All this happened, I thought, just because they didn’t understand what I said.

These were my feelings a few months after I arrived in Peru. I definitely went into a funk. I would grind my teeth while listening to an incomprehensible conversation. Then, I would retreat to the safety of watching the news in English or an American TV program.

I began to believe that Spanish was my enemy.

Irrational, yes.

But, I wanted to focus my frustration somewhere.

Then one day I woke up. I was shaving and looking myself in the mirror when I thought to myself,

“You’ve got this thing about Spanish all wrong!

Spanish is NOT my enemy, it is my FRIEND.”

Spanish is the key to a new and wonderful kingdom. It allows me to enter a new culture, make new friends, and learn things that were not available to me before.

With this realization, something inside me relaxed. Instead of continually fighting a hostile force, I changed. I was at peace. As a friend, Spanish could come into my life and help me.

I now understood that the stress and anger I felt previously was a barrier to my learning. When those feelings left, I began to open up and make real progress. I started talking to taxi drivers, reading the newspapers, watching television in Spanish. Along the way, six weeks of intensive Spanish classes were a big help.

With this new attitude, I made great progress.

Now people understand what I say, and I understand them. I have made a big effort and, in turn, I have learned a lot. I’ll never be perfect, but now I’m in the game and enjoying my life.

I have used this wisdom in my work. I teach English at a university in Lima. I know that my students feel the same way about English as I used to feel about Spanish. So during the first class, I always write on the board in big letters the words---


You can listen to Larry reading his stories at www.soundcloud.com/larryoflima.