May 9, 2015
We have been in Mexico for almost 6 months and have had the opportunity to gain insight into the plight of language barriers and cultural sensitivity. Since I took 5 years of French, I was not nominated as the main interpreter of our group. John had High School Spanish (over 30 years ago) therefore he was nominated by default. Upon our stay in La Paz, we decided we would take Spanish lessons so we had a National, Sergio, come to the boat 3x week for 2 hours each session. Our brains were so fatigued after the sessions. John’s Spanish improved and was able to pull his prior knowledge that had been dormant in the recesses of his brain back to the forefront. Journey and I got a good a spring board and could understand more than we could converse.
As we travelled throughout Mexico we have had to buy groceries, ask for directions, ask for bus/transportation information, and general conversational needs. Whilst John has been able to be our main communicator, we have all tried to use the limited mastery of the language that we have to improve our skills.
Simple tasks such as ordering a meal at a restaurant can be done in English, but we have felt that we are in a Spanish speaking country therefore we should at least try and use our skills. We have found the people of Mexico to be extremely patient with us. Many will try and use their English and we have to ask them to stop so we can learn Spanish. Once they know we are interested in learning the opportunity then lends itself to a “free” lesson. We have had these in shops, markets, and restaurants. We have had several opportunities to help some improve their English while they help us with our Spanish-all done with smiles and laughter as we make strange sounds from our mouths that are supposed to formulate words that seem to sing off the lips of our teachers.
I think about the immigrants who come to the United States. Are they greeted with kindness when they are trying to assimilate? I could not say for certain that they would be. My maternal grandfather immigrated from the Ukraine as a young boy with his parents to New York-none of them spoke English. My grandfather learned on the streets of New York and in school but his parents struggled. I have gained greater sensitivity to the plight of those who are not only struggling to learn the language of their new home, but trying to complete the work of navigating around their community, shopping, and adhering to government rules/paperwork that is not in one’s native language.
We will continue our slow progress towards learning Spanish and I am completely thankful to the people of Mexico that we have met that have encouraged and taught us. It is not only the “gift” of language that I am receiving but the “gift” of sensitivity towards those barriers that may hinder someone’s ability to communicate.