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.