The Language Barrier Within

It’s nearly midnight and I’m standing on the curb outside Guatemala City’s La Aurora Airport, peering over the carpet of jet black hair belonging to the heads of a few hundred Guatemalans. My first lesson in Guatemala: blending in is not an option for me, so I hope to quickly locate the sign bearing my name and get off the street. No such luck. I’m far from home and tremendously alone.

Crowded StreetsMoments ago, at a clean and efficient customs station, I had admonished myself for ever thinking this might be some low-tech landing strip. I was prepared for the terminal to be some homogeneous gray room with a high-ceiling, designed to be bland, familiar and resourceful. I could change some traveler’s checks for Quetzales and maybe find a cup of coffee.

There is no terminal. The plywood tunnel winding away from the baggage claim empties directly into the dirty urban sprawl. Two thousand miles from anyone I’ve ever known, I search in vain for my ride. Glancing at the phone number I had scrawled on a scrap of paper and the bank of alien phone machines, I think fondly of my cell phone, tucked inside a desk drawer half a world away.

Somewhere beyond the curb awaits a small Spanish school in the distant city of Quetzaltenango. By now the elusive airport pick-up should have delivered me to a guest house I had arranged at their suggestion. They had helpfully implied that the streets of Guatemala City are no place for a confused foreigner with any interest in self-preservation.

As passengers pour from the tunnel, the seething crowd swells around me and then slowly exhales the reunited travelers out into the black city. Still I wait. Dusty Spanish verbs and nouns begin to stir between my ears, the dregs of high school language lessons long since passed. I struggle to construct some phrase that might result in my safe delivery to a warm bed.

I toy with possibilities, attempt to predict responses and ready subsequent replies but unwilling to sound foolish, the words remain behind my lips. I realize that in six years of sporadic public school instruction I had, in fact, absorbed information about the language. I just never learned how to speak it.

I think back to those classes and the indifference they inspired in me. Maybe every high school freshman has a teacher whom they are sure is crazy, but when Senora Flores mysteriously disappeared after Spanish I, the rumor was that she was committed. Her replacement sophomore year was Ms. Currick, a genuinely lovely woman who just happened to not speak Spanish. Thus my friends and I decided that Spanish period could be better spent, for example, betting pocket change on whether or not our classmate Adam could swallow all the confetti from the tray on the three hole punch.

Eight years later, stranded in Guatemala City, this ignites a pang of remorse (though I still remember with a smile the surprise in Adam’s eyes when a brief coughing fit produced a stubborn, soggy paper circle two full days after all debts were settled). After an hour of pacing indecision and linguistic paralysis, I look up to see a young Guatemalan just steps away. He is staring at me. He raises a sign with a jumble of consonants in a near approximation of my surname. It’s a formality as I’m the only passenger remaining.

Three years and many countries later, I’m still traveling and learning. I was forced to abandon my initial reluctance to speak Spanish, however poorly, that winter in the cities and towns of Guatemala. But while I could get around, I never found true comfort with the language. The advantages of communication and the frustrations of its limits have often defined my travels, but to rid myself of those limitations I wanted a way to relate to language that wouldn’t involve piecing it together like an algebra equation.

I’ll be exploring such a method over the coming months as I travel through Nicaragua and study with Rosetta Stone’s TOTALe. While I do so, Rosetta Stone has given me the opportunity to share my stories, photography and other random musings about language and travel here on their blog. So thank you for reading, enjoy, and stay tuned for more adventures to come.

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  • Rex H.

    That was amazing and enlightening. I can’t wait to follow this journey around the globe and hear of the expeditions. Great job, Dan.

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