Monday, November 10, 2014

Language Lessons Abroad

A few weeks ago, I told my coworker that I like wearing my horse on top of my head because of the heat in Santiago. 

She just looked at me blankly. With an uncertain smile, I pointed at my head, where my hair was piled up in the style I was trying to describe. Realization hit her and she burst out laughing and explained my mistake with a grin. Unfortunately for me, the Spanish words for hair and horse are very similar (cabello and caballo, respectively). I couldn’t help but chuckle as I hid my blushing cheeks in my hands.
Even after two years of Spanish classes, it still takes me a few tries to accurately convey my thoughts. As evidenced above, I frequently confuse words and meanings. Understanding what people are saying to me is not much easier than speaking to them. But I’m still trying my best to absorb everything that’s said to me throughout the day. After about three months here in la República Dominicana, I would say I understand about 68.3 percent of what I hear.

La bandera waving proudly in the nation’s capital, Santo Domingo
However, this still leaves at least a 31.7 percent margin of error (not allowing for distractions caused by the sweltering heat, the constant sunburn, or frequent bug bites). Sometimes it feels as if my time as an exchange student has been largely defined by moments of linguistic confusion.

The view of Santiago’s iconic El Monumento from my bedroom window.
Since August I have been living and breathing (and tripping all over) la cultura dominicana in my host city, Santiago de los Caballeros in the Dominican Republic. As a student in the CIEE-Service Learning program, I spend my mornings in classes at the Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra, located in the heart of Santiago. On the weekends—at least when I’m not doing homework—I explore the island of Hispaniola.

I’ve stopped by the capital, Santo Domingo:

Apparently, you have to specifically ask the street vendors not to put corn in your hair when you buy a bag of corn to feed the pigeons.

A few beautiful beaches:

The Caribbean sun is NOT messing around. Blancas like me MUST wear sunscreen at all times.

 And national parks on the coast and in the mountains:

Bug spray has become this girl’s best friend. No matter where I go the mosquitos find me! 
However, the best parts of my semester are every weekday afternoon. When classes are over for the day I head off to work with the local community organization Fundación Cuidado Infantil Dominicano (Dominican Childcare Foundation, FCID). There I meet up with a community healthcare worker (called a promotora) and we make our way to the poorest neighborhoods in the province of Santiago.

Walking through the neighborhood Parada Siete, named for a nearby bus stop, with my promotoras.

In these neighborhoods, we provide affordable rehabilitation services to children with disabilities and teach their families how to best support and care for these children. The program adapts its services to each child within a broad spectrum of disabilities that manifest physically or cognitively.

At times, my novice-level Spanish catches up with me. The horse/hair/head debacle is just one example of my daily blunders in the world of language immersion. Many visits with FCID put my fledgling Spanish skills to the test as I talk with children who have speech impediments or cognitive disabilities. The ensuing conversations usually end up being a test of vocabulary (for me) and patience (for the kid).

Giving homework help to Luis Eddy.

In these conversations, I’ve added some really useful words, such as oso, cordillas, and pinzas (bear, shoelaces, and tweezers) to my mental dictionary. I’ve also frantically searched my brain for a particular word that is always right on the tip of my tongue. Most importantly, I’ve learned the best coping mechanism for a language barrier is a smile.

When Spanish words fail me (which is more often than not), a smile can suffice as an hola, a gracias, a felicidades, an adiós, or an invitation to play.

I have a means of communication, even if I am sunburnt to a crisp,covered in bug bites, and my hair smells like pigeons and corn. A smile will almost always take the place of a sentence (especially when I can’t remember the difference between cabello and caballo).

- Hannah Currens '17