By Regina Markert –
One of my personal heroes is Heinrich Schliemann. If you don’t know who he is, he was a man who mastered over 20 languages in his life. How does one begin to do that?
There’s a story of Schliemann traveling to Sweden and speaking to the natives with ease when he got off the boat—even though he had never studied or heard the language before his journey. After hearing about Schliemann, I decided that mastering languages was by far the coolest superpower there is. I’d rather be able to speak Japanese than to fly, or be able to converse in Dutch than to become invisible.
I have been learning Spanish since the sixth grade. During my senior year, I decided I had to take it to the next level if I was to be my generation’s Schliemann. I wanted to become completely fluent, so I signed up for Global Citizen Year (GCY), a nonprofit organization that sends kids to Ecuador, India, Senegal, or Brazil for eight months between high school and college for a gap year. I was accepted, and by December knew that I was headed to Ecuador to learn Spanish! GCY hooked me up with Rosetta Stone® software, which was a fantastic way for me to work on my language at my own pace. I felt like I had Heinrich teaching me!
Once I arrived in Ecuador, I was eager to test out just how much I knew. I took a page out of Schliemann’s book and began conversing with my host family in Spanish as soon as I could. For the most part, everything ran smoothly. But like any language learner, I ran into a few mishaps.
We had reviewed the words for fruits and vegetables in my classes and in the Rosetta Stone program. However, somehow the word for “pumpkin” escaped me one fateful September day. My family and I were in the garden, talking about our different cultures and foods, and my host sister tried to ask me if I liked calabasa.
“¿Calabasa? ¿Qué es eso?” I asked.
“Es un vegetal que es gordo y naranjo,” she responded, miming the curves of a pumpkin. After more confused looks and a quick peek online, our language barrier dissolved—or so I thought.
She asked me a question, which I thought was, “Do you like pumpkin pudding?” As it turns out, I’m not a huge fan. I made a face and made my distaste clear right as my host mom set a bowl of mashed pumpkin purée in front of me. My face turned bright red from embarrassment. The entire extended family thought it was the funniest thing ever. That experience taught me to not always assume what someone is asking. If you need clarification, don’t be afraid to ask.
Later, I would find out just how high the barrier is between my Spanish and that of native Spanish speakers. With GCY, I have the opportunity to work at a daycare center, or Centro Infantil del Buen Vivir (CIBV), with kids ages one to four. I started the year working with the one-year-olds, which mostly consisted of me feeding them and making sure they didn’t hurt themselves or each other.
It was lunch time at the CIBV, and I was in charge of a girl named Maite and a boy named Matias. I was peacefully spoon feeding Matias some seco de pollo when I look over at Maite. Lo and behold, she was having an accident. (To keep from being too graphic, I’ll keep at that.) I didn’t know what to do, so I turned to my supervisor, who was a few tables away helping another teacher feed some students.
“Algo está pasando con la Maite,” I called. Something is happening with Maite.
“¿Qué? ¿Está vomitando?” She replied. What? Is she vomiting?
I didn’t know how to politely say in Spanish that she was defecating. The only situationally appropriate words I knew were not rated PG.
“De atrás,” was all I could say. I basically said, “She’s vomiting from behind.”
Boy, later my family thought that was funny, too. I learned from that experience that it’s healthy and helpful to laugh at yourself. I felt closer to my family after telling them the story, and I think they liked me more afterwards. Embarrassment brings people together. (Mis tíos still like to tell the story sometimes.) Laughing at your mistakes makes them easier to handle the next time.
My most recent lesson on language learning came just a week ago. My host mom, host sister and I were grocery shopping for Sunday, when the entire extended family comes over. My host mom wanted to make sopa de pata. If you know what pata is, then you already know what’s in store for me. (I was blissfully unaware.)
We walked down to the center of town and stopped at a random house. My host mom knocked on the door and called up to someone on the balcony, “Deme una patita para la sopa, por favor.” Give me a pata for soup, please.
We heard someone coming down the stairs and then opening the door. As the woman let us see into her house, I was met with a box of patas. It then became painfully clear what we had come here to buy: cow hooves. We were here for cow hoof soup.
I thought I had gotten my culture shock under control by then. But I had a moment when the woman and my host mom started rummaging through the box for a suitable cow leg. Finally deciding on one, my host mom handed it to the woman. She took it over to a saw and made incisions up and down the leg about three-fourths of the way through. They bundled it up in a plastic bag, and we went on our way.
On Sunday, we sat down for almuerzo. As I was handed my soup, it was hard to ignore the hoof floating there. My family slurped it up, but I couldn’t seem to find the courage. Again, my family teased me that I wasn’t truly Ecuadorian yet, to which I replied, “Dame dos meses.” (Give me two months.) This response is now a running joke in the family. Whenever something is just a little too weird for me, they tell me, “Wait two months!” I learned that patience with yourself is critical when learning a language and immersing yourself in a culture.
All in all, though I’d like to think I’m on my way to being the next Schliemann, I’ve still got a way to go—30.2 languages, to be precise. Though it’s a daunting task to learn a language, I’m so grateful I’m doing it. Spanish has opened up lessons and opportunities that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I’ve met people, eaten food, and traveled places with my language. I’m deeply appreciative to Rosetta Stone, my Spanish teachers, and GCY for giving me the gift of a language.
About Regina Markert
Regina Markert, a current Fellow with Global Citizen Year, hails from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is passionate about Spanish and working with little kids. She’s in a marimba band and loves to teach alpine skiing and knitting. Her favorite TV show is The Office, and her favorite book is Pride and Prejudice. Her goals for this year are to build her language and people skills, and to make lifelong friendships!