Mar 1, 2006, 5:03 PM
Post #1 of 7
I have been thinking on this subject for a few weeks, I hope that estimado Sr Quevedo finds it appropriate for this forum. I'm writing this in english as it would be beyond my abilities in spanish, there are subtleties involved that I can only express in english. I want to be clear that I am not complaining but would like to read some discussion from others on how they have handled this situation and how they see it.
Here's the thing: I am currently traveling with 3 other people (one my significant other and the other 2 good friends) in areas where little english is spoken. We've been on the road for over 3 weeks mostly in Guatemala. My spanish is not good, not pretty and not correct. It is functional and I improve daily but I am fairly sure I sound like an uneducated hick to a fluent spanish speaker despite the wonderful compliments I get from polite locals.
I can communicate though on almost any subject and I can read the newspapers and such. As is normal, I understand a lot more than I can speak because while I understand the correct usage I don't usually remember to use it when speaking. I have good days and bad days, sometimes I amaze myself by expounding on a great many subjects with little problems and understanding multiple casual conversations going on around me. Other days, everything is a struggle.
My friends speak from very little to no spanish at all. Therein lie all the problems. I've identified several that I'd love some discussion about.
#1 It is hard to tell what they understand and what they don't. If I translate everything they can get insulted and act as though I should know they understood that. That's OK, I'm learning to look for some kind of comprehension before translating. They also can get irritated if I translate 5 sentences into one phrase. It's difficult to keep up with listening and translating without cutting out the unnecessary and just translating the jist of what was said. Plus, I forget sometimes what was said in the beginning as I have to wait until the other person stops speaking to start translating.
If I jump in and translate for them without being asked, they feel I am being condescending but if I don't they often make some incredible wrong guesses on what was said. The classic is in a restaurant where one ordered caldo de something and then was irritated that they got soup. I had not quizzed them if they understood what they were ordering and they had quite clearly ordered on their own without wanting to ask me what it was. More importantly they will often confuse derecho and derecha and of course sometimes derecho is derecha so allowing them to get directions on their own is not usually successful. They want to do it though so lately I've been staying back and letting the one who has a little spanish to ask for directions. It hasn't worked out well yet, if fact there have been some monumental screw ups. I keep telling myself it is better to let the screw ups happen than to interject myself as if I were checking up on them (shoot, not as if, I would be checking as they get it wrong so often).
#2 It's not just a language, it's a culture! I am trying to get across that many times when I ask a question for them I don't really get an answer. The answer may be vague, it may be fairly unrelated to what I asked, it may be a lot of polite suggestions and no real answer, it may be that in my opinion they don't know but are being polite. What happens is that I get a look like I didn't ask the question right or a suggestion that I really drill the person for an answer. This happens alot when asking about the condition of roads and routes in the countryside. I keep telling them that probably a lot of these people don't know as they haven't been more than 10km from their house in their lives. It's a hard concept to get across. I don't want to drill them for more answers, they've told me what they can. Irritation results from my friends in these situations and I start feeling put upon about it. I need to find a way to do this without bad feelings.
I have explained that there are cultural differences in how questions are answered, that answers are not always as clear cut as they are in english but still, I often get the feeling that my friends are irritated with me because of the answers I give them. I get mad that they are irritated with me, I feel stuck in the middle. Also, I start feeling that they think I just don't know how to ask the question right. That could be true in some instances but truthfully it isn't what is happening most of the time. If I don't know a word I can describe it and get the word, while my vocabulary has huge gaps in it I know how to explain what I want until I get the word. The problem is that they don't like the answer and I am not responsible for that.
#3 When they try to speak spanish I work very hard at not interfering. Sometimes though, they mangle the word so bad and the look of utter incomprehension is so strong on the listening person's face that I do repeat what they tried to say but correctly. This almost always gets me a nasty look from my friends. I try not to do it but when it is clear that they are not being understood, what do I do?
These are the main points I'm pondering. Again I want to say I'm not complaining. I love these people dearly and just want to be better at the role I have. I also know that this is something I will be dealing with often. Not everyone intends to spend great amounts of time in a spanish speaking country thus they have no chance or need to learn the language. I do not want this to become a rant against those who don't speak spanish. I want some ideas on how others have dealt with this, how they have worked it out for themselves and their friends.
Jonna - Mérida, Yucatán