Oberlin Blogs

What language barrier?

January 22, 2010

Zoe McLaughlin ’11

For as long as I've been doing service projects and actually been thinking about what I've been doing, I've held the belief that the most important thing--even over whatever other work you think you're doing--is to interact with the people. Now, this does not come easily to me. I'm a shy person (even though I do write about myself on the internet). Through high school, I participated in a service project that had a strong emphasis on what they called "moseying." Basically, hanging out with the family you were helping out was just as important as fixing their front porch. Going to Nicaragua, I took this mindset with me.

However, as I've probably already mentioned (but I'll do it again anyway), I don't speak Spanish. In high school, I took French. Then, bored with my study hall, I started taking Italian. I took two years of Italian in all--the first year and the third year of the sequence--so in theory I know as much Italian as a tenth grader knows. It's actually a bit less than that, because I quickly found that I could guess at a lot of the Italian from the French I already knew. Consequently, all the Italian I know is based off of my French knowledge. For Spanish, it's even worse. I started doing some lessons online and found that Spanish was a lot like Italian. So all my Spanish is based on all my Italian, which is based on all my French, and each conversion represents a loss in vocabulary and grammar.

The first day in Nicaragua, we walked around the town to become acquainted with it. We also walked around the site where we could be working, and that was where I first met the kids who I was destined to spend the next two weeks with. We were in a pretty small town, so understandably everyone knew we there, including the kids. And they were very excited to see us. By lunchtime, one of them had already coerced apple juice and piggyback rides out of us, and was working his way up to bigger things.

This is Dixon. He was one of the kids who I had the most conversations with. Usually they involved me trying to express myself with improperly conjugated verbs and him good-naturedly pretending that he understood what I was saying. Actually, it wasn't that bad. My verbs were all improperly conjugated, but he did usually understand me, and if he didn't it was pretty obvious and I'd try saying it a different way or he'd drag me off to find someone who spoke both Spanish and English.

Here's my favorite Dixon story:

One night, a bunch of the kids were playing soccer in the street. I was sitting on the front stoop of the house where I stayed, watching them. Dixon came and put his shoes down next to mine so I said, "Uh oh, Dixon. If you leave those shoes there, I might take them." (Actually, it was more like, "Shoes for me?" I sound a bit like Tarzan, but the point was clear.) This concerned Dixon enough that after telling me no, he took the shoes back and went over to a bush. He then proceeded to stuff them in there, but his attention span wasn't quite long enough. He got distracted, dropped them back on the stoop, and went to continue the soccer game.

A while later, I looked back and the shoes were gone. I glanced at Dixon and he still wasn't wearing shoes, so I asked him where his shoes were. (This one I actually got right. At least I'm pretty sure it got right.) He proudly went over to the bush and pulled them out to show me. Some time when I'd been distracted he'd remembered what he'd been doing and come back to finish the task. He's a wily guy, that Dixon.

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