I Don’t Understand

There is one Spanish phrase that I have used more than any in my three weeks here in Mexico. No, it’s not “See you later”; thankfully, it’s not “I need a bathroom, fast”; but unfortunately it’s not “Thank you for the beer.” No, of all the phrases that I have used on a regular basis, the one phrase that I use more times per a day than I care count is, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

As you can imagine, this is a a frustrating thing to have to say on a number of different levels.

The first, quite simply, is that it sucks to be dumb. For someone who has always done well in school, has a fairly good grasp of the English language and is more than comfortable expressing personal and complex thoughts and feelings, to routinely have to say that “I don’t understand” and ask that they repeat themselves more slowly is humiliating. If, by chance, they are patient enough to speak to me like a small child—only adding to the feeling of inadequacy—I’m likely to understand the gist of the question or comment, but am left with another dilemma: What do I say in return? “Yes, I like cheese,” or “I am from the United States,” or “I need food.” Simple, direct, and extremely limited in expressing any sort of complexity or affect. So often I find myself wanting to say something just beyond the ordinary—a wish, a conditional statement, something with subtlety—but have to filter my ideas through my vastly inferior speaking ability.

And for casual conversations, this sort of embarrassment or frustration is to be expected, and most of the volunteers are helpful enough to make every conversation a teaching moment rather than get frustrated with me in return. But what about in conversations with the migrants, those who find themselves in great physical, emotional, and spiritual need? When a volunteer asks if I have seen such-and-such a person but I don’t understand the question, there’s really no problem; when a migrant asks me where they can get some food, tells me about their home country, or seeks help about some issue they have, to stare back at them blankly, request that they speak slower, and repeatedly have to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” it’s a different story. I feel stupid, yes, but often they do too. For some, my inability to understand them looks poorly on me as a student of the language (which is fine), but for others, the experience only furthers their feelings of doubt and alienation. “You don’t understand me?” It’s not about the language, per se, but feelings of inadequacy, feelings of being unintelligent, feelings of not being understood by others.

It’s a complex situation and I have mixed feelings about my experience thus far. On the one hand, there is tremendous benefit to being put in such a vulnerable situation, stripped of my confidence and forced to feel as so many do everyday. It is truly a “minor” position, and even if the conversation yields no tangible results for either party and I don’t necessarily grow in my Spanish-speaking ability, it is an experience worth having. On the other hand, though, there is definitely a sense that I would benefit more under controlled conditions, speaking to people who are not so vulnerable themselves, and who, frankly, are able to annunciate and articulate themselves in a simple enough way for me to grasp what is going on. (People from one country in particular are almost impossible to understand, even for the Mexican volunteers. For example, in one conversation this morning, one women said “De-SAY.” After a few seconds of confusion, I realized that what she was saying was dieciséis, the word for sixteen, pronounced, Dee-es-ee-SAYes, not “De-Say.”) To have “conversations” in which I am consistently lost from beginning to end doesn’t seem to be the best way to learn a language.

But who knows. Now just under three weeks in, Christian and I have another six weeks in Mexico to make the most of it. Our classes each day (for three hours) have been going well, I’m constantly studying vocabulary on an app on my phone, and I’m starting to notice results. I’m picking up more words in each sentence, I’m beginning to get more comfortable speaking, and just today, Christian said that he thought my vocabulary had noticeably improved already. Here’s hoping! For now, I’ll just have to get used to the fact that I’m not going to understand everything, and that that is okay.

9 Comments on “I Don’t Understand

  1. Hi brother!
    May I ask what or who brought you to Mexico or what was the purpose to be attained, at least?
    And, what was your level of Spanish before deciding to go or sending you there?
    Someone is putting you at stake or just proving your levels of humility (not your linguistic capacities only, but especially your resilience towards humiliation!), which is probably the number 1 exercise you should go through before becoming a fully formed Franciscan…
    Hope you overcome the experience -remember old missionaries had to deal with and immerse in far more difficult and primitive languages to get to really understand those people…

    • Hi Antoni,

      My desire was primarily to grow in my ability to speak Spanish, but it was not my only goal. I could have went to a language school, but there is a strong ministry and justice component that helps to develop our charism. It’s a good formation experience.

      Prior to coming to Mexico, I had taken Spanish in college and so I have a strong foundation of the basics.

  2. As a special education teacher in Prince William County, VA I service numerous children from
    Hispanic families. They all have come to the United States in search of a safer, better life for their children. Many times I find myself saying “I don’t understand” until this past Saturday. One of my families invited my family to a Baptism at St. Francis of Assisi. I walked into St. Francis as I do every weekend but this time I felt somewhat as an outsider. There were three Baptisms scheduled for the 10am service so the pews were quite full. As the Hispanic priest started to speak I was able to understand a few words here and there but honestly I didn’t understand. After a few minutes I realized I did understand, not the Spanish, but the true meaning of why we were there. I doesn’t matter the language we all understand the Word of the Lord. We understand the joy and pain of the people around us with or without understanding what is said.
    God Bless

  3. Casey, in my old age, I’ve concluded that many of us should become fluent in Spanish because the Spanish speaking population in the states is growing rapidly. I’m surprised that your training as a friar doesn’t include Spanish language instruction.

    • Spanish is definitely useful in today’s Church. Some, however, have predicted that this wave might be over in another 20 years as immigration rates are dropping. I don’t know.

      As far as your wondering why it is not a part of our formation, that’s exactly what this is. We are here as a part of our program to learn Spanish.

  4. Hello Brother! What an experience! I am guessing you will learn so much from your weeks in Mexico. As you said in your video before you left, you have never really been put under such pressure in such conditions, as your life in the US has always been pretty good. As hellish as it sounds in Mexico right now for you, you will surely only benefit from it and broaden your understanding of the human experiences of others, which will help shape you as a friar. Keep going! You may not feel it, but just seeing you around must be a great comfort to people who have very little trust in others.

  5. Hola, hermano!
    Don’t forget… humility is a very important lesson in priestly – no, human – formation.
    I have always found that Spanish-speaking people are very understanding/forgiving/appreciative
    of those who try to speak their language… no matter how much we mangle and slaughter it.
    It’s all in the trying, so just keep trying!
    Buena suerte!

  6. In 1989, shortly after ordination for a NE diocese, I met up with buddy priests from the South going to a mission in Mexico. I majored in Spanish in college. I thought I had a good command. After the first day— mass in Spanish, I threw my grammatically correct homily away. I struggled with the cultural difference and was truly humbled!
    3-4 masses a day, baptisms with 100’s of kids at a time, and soon I realized I celebrated some of the sacraments more in Spanish than English!!!! Those almost two weeks gave me a lifetime of memories! Good luck to you Casey!
    ¡Tengas mucha suerte! Bendición. Joe

  7. Estimado hermano Casey:

    Greetings from the south-east corner of Spain, the land of origin of the beautiful language you are learning. I found your blog by chance, and it has been a gift to read though it and realise the deep human and religious charisms you have. Reading about your current experiences, I have remembered a lecture given by Cardinal Ratzinger in Subiaco (Italy) on Europe’s crisis of culture. This was given a day before the death of Pope Saint John Paul II, 1 April 2005. Nearly at the end of the lecture, he said this wise words:

    “We need men whose intellects are enlightened by the light of God, and whose hearts God opens, so that their intellects can speak to the intellects of others, and so that their hearts are able to open up to the hearts of others.”

    I consider these words a crystal clear depiction of the miracle of Pentecost. Nothing but the deep blend of intellect and heart can explain the supernatural evangelisation of the first disciples, and some centuries after, the force that inspired the european missionaries crossing the ocean. Let the Holy Spirit guide you. Probably it will be mainly through your heart rather than your intellect that the Spanish will get into you.

    Que Dios te bendiga.

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