Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Language Barrier

It's like speaking another language.
Oh wait.. right.

I've never taken Spanish lessons. But I'm wonderful at picking up accents, so despite my lack of vocabulary, knowledge of the grammar structure, understanding of others and complete ability to communicate at all- I'm set.

I've been in Mexico now for about a week and a half- two and a half more weeks left. It's amazing how fast time flies. El tiempo nunca es sufficiente. There is so much to learn, so much to see and experience, I couldn't possibly put a time limit on it- and if I had to, I'd definitely give myself more than a few more weeks here.

Originally, my goal for this summer was "learn Spanish." Ambitious, no? The plan was to trek across my own country, then head off to Mexico for a month, and then ship myself down to Costa Rica for a month, and return to SoCal, a fluent Spanish speaker. Well, for a number of reasons, the Costa Rica portion of my plan never panned out, and I've come to a few realizations about language.

A friend of mine can communicate with a certain level of ease in both Mandarin and Spanish (and English)- to the extent that most people would call him fluent. Except here's what he says about fluency: "language is a tool that points beyond itself but is not what it represents and thus true fluency is impossible." Language is akin to the hammer and nail necessary to put a door in a wall. Our words expresses the ability that the door represents to move from one room to another, however, the hammer(language) is the tool to achieve such an end. I remember him making the point to me once that we are not nearly fluent in ENGLISH, how can we possibly ever master any language? Language is one of many tools for communication- for connecting with others- and WE are constantly changing. The way in which we connect is therefore in constant flux. It is constantly being adapted to suit the needs of the people using it. Think of the slang used so frequently in the US, the turns of phrases that make zero grammatical sense and the trends in speech that have risen and fallen even within the last few decades- It becomes clear that fluency is merely an elusive and impractical idea that exists only within the limits of the world of external form- the world we live in. In reality, spoken language is already at LEAST one step away from the core of what we want to express. We have a sensation, a feeling or an experience, then we have biases, previous experiences and emotional attachments that then shape the energy generated by that sensation/emotion/whatever and then we translate that energy into thoughts in the language we've been exposed to, all in attempt to communicate our personal experiences to others.

All of a sudden, the phrase, "lost in translation," takes on a whole new meaning.

Upon arriving in Mexico, I was excited beyond belief, and overwhelmed on a dimension with which I was unfamiliar. And though I'd been to India previously, and had lived with a family that spoke no English, that experience included a New York native room-mate and minimal emphasis on the homestay life. This, however, is different. My homestay is a huge part of my experience here, and community engagement is just as important as the Spanish class I'm registered in (for credit). And even though I'd been looking forward to this trip, literally since early December, it hadn't really sunk in just how foreign this was going to feel. Until I got here. The first night in Temixco, we had dinner as a class in what became our out-door classroom, sat around a table and we each took our turns sharing what we thought we'd miss the most while being here. But we did it en EspaƱol. I think I mumbled something about amigos.


Part of the structure of this program includes "service sociale"- roughly "community service." Two days a week for about 2 or 3 hours we break up into groups and share time and space with children who live at the "Conviviencia," somewhat of an equivalent to Family Child services in the States. After our first session there, a friend of mine who is pretty darn comfortable in the Spanish language related to me what one of the 6 year old girls told her- that some of the children are there because their parents were abusive, but not all. Many have obvious developmental disorders, or extreme physical limitations, many are on medications, most are aggressive in some way, and they're all in need of love. Children are brought to the Conviviencia anywhere between 3 days and 12 years old, after 12, I don't know where they go.

This was the setting for the deepest understanding I've had as of yet of this notion of a language barrier.

Jessica, somewhere between 6 and 8 years old, sat on the ground. Her hair is cut short, presumably so she doesn't pull it out. Her moreno face is thin and her eyes are big, and searching. Her mouth is gaping open, revealing angular and angry teeth, twisting from the pain of being unable to express herself with them. Saliva drips from her lips as though in an effort to get something, anything, out. Her frame is small, her body bony and she looks deceivingly fragile. I think her strength surprised more than just me. Her legs are deviant. Her knees seem to be glued together, locked at an inconvenient angle making it impossible to walk. Her feet are crooked- the flowers on the end of a vine winding, lost and in search of the sun, pulled this way and that until her body surrendered. Her wheelchair is somewhere around the playground, serving as a toy for the time being. I watch her from a moderate distance for a few minutes as she grips her claws on the grass beneath her, as though she resents having to be so close to the Earth. She lets out random cries and painful screams, alternately pounding her fists on the ground and on her head. I imagine it must be loud in there.
-One of the caretakers informs us that she's just having a "tantrum."

But how can any of us possibly know for sure? Perhaps it is naive, but she seemed to be in such deep pain, it strikes me as negligent and downright cruel to dismiss her cries. But, perhaps this is a cultural difference, a childcare technique with which I am unfamiliar, and who am I to challenge it?
I think, however, that if the categorization of her behavior as a tantrum is not accurate, and these professional caretakers can't make sense of Jessica's form of communication, how in the world can I?
How can I possibly know what she's thinking? Her language exists in a different dimension and my linguistic communication can’t touch her. Even if the sounds I made fell somewhere close to her ears, and even if I knew what she wanted to hear, Merriam Webster couldn’t explain to her what I want to say. And who’s to say my thoughts would help at all?


  1. Ahhhhh, how very. How deeply moving.
    You and I can certainly not say, but it there are cases where the right doctor with the right observation and some luck have diagnosed what seems a hopeless case and with the right treatment a near miracle occurs.
    But you and I can only hope.

    Love ya,

  2. At times words do not matter. Jessica can feel your love and energy. There are other ways to communicate.