Working and living with a host family in Madriz, Nicaragua that did not speak my native language was a cultural experience that to date is one of the most interesting things I have ever gotten to observe. There is a particularly special relationship that goes hand in hand with the ability to communicate effectively. Language proficiency, or lack thereof, is a fascinating phenomena that creates a bond little explored despite its outstanding uniqueness.
I have found that speaking with children in their native language is consistently easier to do than with their adult counterparts. Children hardly have the ability to speak fluently, and in my experience, have the tendency to be kinder in regards to your shortcomings. Younger children would laugh lightheartedly when I made an especially egregious mistake in their language, which is opposed to older people who blushed and pretended not to have noticed. Kids, particularly young ones, are universally less serious than adults, which makes incomprehension a relatively minor event. In short, children do not care if you mess up. They care about dancing and singing, who can run the fastest, jump the furthest, play soccer the best. However, as they get older, kids tend to grow apart from these things and it becomes significantly harder when they become more dependent on language to communicate, and can, depending on the child, take it seriously. My host brother’s cousin, who was nine years old, did this to us a lot; he would often stop us while talking to correct us, wagging his finger condescendingly as he slowly re-pronounced the word without our American accent. “Iglesia” and “burro” were his favorite words to do this with, the prolonged "i" and rolled rr’s of Spanish were concepts that I, like many native English speakers, have never quite mastered.
Adults were less open about it than some of the kids were, but I knew how difficult it was not to get frustrated with my half-ability to understand what they were saying to me. I felt it myself. It was easy to sense the exasperation coming from my host-mom when she tried to teach me how to do something relatively simple, the Nicaraguan way. For example, laundry is a simple chore that I had to completely relearn how to do abroad; the task was made all the more difficult because I couldn’t comprehend what was being explained to me, and obviously frustrating for the person trying to teach me. This reinforced the importance of language as an effective tool to achieve understanding although it may be readily comprehended as such.
In addition to both my frustration and other’s, there were other barriers I did not expect to face, which were the exact opposite of the other issues I have addressed so far: my ability was underestimated and I understood more than the speaker intended to. Once, in a meeting with community leaders that neither I or my partner were leading on that particular day, a man made a joke about how we were useless, and might as well send us up the mountain alone on a donkey. To this day, I’m not exactly sure what he meant by that, but he blushed and laughed awkwardly when he realized I understood what he had said. Some weren’t quite as severe as this, like my host mother’s sister making a comment about how she liked my boots and hoped I would leave them behind when I left. She even confessed that she didn’t think I could understand her when she said this after I laughed at the comment said in front of me.
I mostly discuss my personal experiences with the difficulties of the language barrier, but what I wish to address is the uniqueness of such interactions. I am of the opinion that these are truly remarkable relationships, and have changed the way I treat others regardless if we share a similar language or not. Because at their core, these relationships, lacking in a common language and culture, are possibly the most understanding of connections. They are of paramount importance. Stripped of language, people can’t hide behind their words, and as a result every interaction is a raw, endlessly awkward, and, because of this, deeply human.
You don’t need words to say things. You need compassion, kindness, and mutual respect. You can say what is needed by your actions. My host’s mother’s rough hands tell me this, littered with torn calluses and skin hanging loosely off the bone, resting gingerly atop mine as she showed me, taught me, how to knead dough for that week’s supply of tortillas; our smothered giggles when I flipped it badly and caused it to fry lopsided, half folded onto itself. The big, attentive eyes of my host brother tell me this, too, as he tried to copy my fast English numbers, writing down the phonetics of it on loose paper as his lips moved silently around the words. The heartwarming feeling of coming inside in time for your favorite novela to find a seat already set out for you, tell me this as well. Our neighbor’s daughter’s slender fingers masterfully tucking my chopped hair into a braid, tugging on it affectionately and laughing, a whisper of “too short!” in my ear. Even though the language barrier tests patience and can be extraordinarily frustrating at times, mutual respect and a commitment to understanding each other and working through failures to develop a relationship is what is necessary for all human connections to take place, regardless of what language is spoken. My month working abroad taught me something I will value highly for the rest of my life: love is not told, but shown.
(Photographs courtesy of Laney Gustafson)