Arts & Culture / Mosaic / Study Abroad / April 10, 2013

Dispatch from Abroad: Paradoxical language

(Andrei Papancea/TKS)

(Andrei Papancea/TKS)

One of the most important reasons I spent spring break with a friend from the States rather than with people from my own program is because I knew that their version of traveling is different from my own. There are many versions of traveling, though they often encompass the same principles. Referring to my previous column on traveling to Rome reveals the very style of travel I don’t enjoy: 10,000 monuments and historical sights, three days to see them all. No time to spare between monuments — really, no time to enjoy the monuments themselves.

Instead, my friend and I put together a grand tour of three cities: London, Paris and Prague, all of which didn’t involve anything traditional. We’d wander around. Get lost for a bit in the streets, the people, the language itself. See what we would come across. I flew to England and met her at the Falmer train station in Brighton, where I had to use a stranger’s phone to get in contact with her via Facebook because I didn’t have either a mobile or her cell number to tell her I’d arrived. She appeared minutes later, smiling. And the journey began.

She showed me Brighton in a day. We wandered around the streets and came across shops she’d never seen.

We went to Bikram Yoga — a new language all its own that didn’t involve the phrase, ‘close your eyes and feel the energy’ as I imagined it would — after stuffing ourselves with vegan Indian food. We both felt sick and frozen after the ride back to her dorm. Two hours later, we were still awake and planning the rest of our journey, practicality forgotten. Our to-do lists included a range of things from the abstract, such as “find Victor Hugo in Paris,” to the concrete, “buy a fur Soviet hat in Prague, preferably with the hammer and sickle intact.” Now we didn’t buy a furry hat, but we did find hats with the old insignia woven into their brims.

We opted for hostels in London, Paris, Prague and she in Barcelona. I forgot how to interact in English in the morning, no matter the languages spoken around us. She doesn’t speak Spanish. She just stared at me until I realized which language I was speaking in. Yet, she still understood me.

The same thing happened with strangers — even in London. I naturally turned to Spanish when addressing strangers on the street or clerks in a store, as I would in Barcelona.  I’d been doing it for so long that I didn’t realize how natural it had become.  Immersion at its core.

I remember saying to my friend one evening at dinner, “I can’t wait to be in France or Prague where the language will be hard again. We’ll have to really listen to understand.” She raised her eyebrows and me and just laughed. She was born in Russia during the collapse of the Soviet Union. She’s been speaking two languages all her life. Russian in the house, English in the streets. Russian with our Russian friends, English with me. But I understand my friends when they speak Russian around me, as she understood me when I spoke Spanish to her.

It’s one of the paradoxes of language. She understood me not because she has some previously unrealized inclination for Spanish, but rather because she knows me. She knows my gestures, the way I move when I speak. She used those clues to devise what I was saying and they were enough to give her a rather specific idea of the words I used. While she couldn’t translate specific words, she responded quickly and fluidly in English when she needed to. She’d pass the jam — or the salt, or the water — when I asked her for it. She’d turn off the light or close the window. She’d move the clothes over on the heater where we were drying them.

I realized I spoke more Spanish with her than I have all term with anyone in my own program who knows the language. It all stems back to feeling comfortable. This girl has been one of my closest friends for almost four years now. I can tell her anything in any language and she’ll understand. Speaking Spanish to her created fluidity in my use of the language that I’d previously lacked because I’d been thinking too much. Suddenly, it wasn’t about which word was correct — it was about getting my point across at the rate of a natural speaker in a way that could be understood to continue a conversation. Approaching language learning in this manner seems more logical, but is harder to put into practice for someone like me, who enjoys listening over talking.

Being back in Barcelona has stumped me a bit. I felt more natural speaking with her than I do with my host family or the other students in the program. It feels as though there’s an air of judgment lingering during all the Spanish conversations I initiate with my host mom and, on some occasions, with the other students themselves. We are all here to learn to speak Spanish better. So where is the shared air of comfort? We aren’t strangers but we aren’t all exactly friends, either. It seems I’ve run across another paradox — one I hope to touch on in the future.

Elizabeth Guth

Tags:  barcelona Bikram Yoga Brighton english France Indian food language London paradox Paris Prague Rome spanish study abroad travel vegan Victor Hugo

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