Culture and customs

How learning a new language expands our horizons

A dance of cultures…
with ever-so-slightly syncopated accents of Spanglish, Portunhol, and more

This isn’t aiming at being an exhaustive treatise on language, touching on all the extensive interrelated angles. If it can just manage to interestingly offer some useful tips. Tips gleaned from shared experiences, well, that’d be better than good enough for the moment, I think. It’s largely also an open invitation to readers: to bring forward your own reflections and anecdotes. Ways of showing culture clashes and struggles and victories. Both the funny things and the sad things you and your friends have undergone. Things that’ve made you laugh and cry and learn.

Second-language medley              #1 — Tongue-tied

Being something of a transplant from one place to another, one culture to another, one language or regional dialect variation to another, is rather a common variation on a theme in the global community of Cafh. And for so many many other assorted people all over the world. Through time, and very especially in these, we see massive population movements.  The other way around applies, too. This happens with some of one’s companions & co-workers. They are coming from other climes & backgrounds, and us having to merge in and be bridges, everybody on all sides having to deal with those quirky, sometimes irritating, sometimes enchanting foreign ways.

so many offbeat variations on the theme

Though there have been some other twists of the tale (like Colombians getting socially acclimatized to Chile, or Argentines to Brazil), for many of us here that has mainly been a process of North Americans getting used to Latin culture and Spanish, and of South Americans getting immersed in “gringo-land” and English. That’s spawned quite a lot that could be reciprocally shared of all these so-similar yet so-distinct experiences, the instructive, the funny, the harmonious, the culture-shock miscommunications and noise.

all those wacky curve balls life throws you

For understanding the lingo, so much depends on those divergent modalities of culture, history, ethnic influences, etymologies…; on and on. Not to mention body language and gestures – a whole other kettle of fish! What in the world does that wagging finger mean? Or that scrunched-up nose? That jut of the chin? And physical distances from each other? — how close is too close, intimidating and presumptuous; or not close enough, cold, arrogant, unfriendly; or in that just right sweet spot, putting people at ease?

it takes a village, don’t it?

For sure it’s a joint, team effort, multi-directional multi-dimensional experience – learning/teaching from/to each other, from others’ “mistakes”, or maybe when some “kind soul” tries to imperfectly, misguidedly, give “corrections”. Or finding how much changing accents, opinions, moods and styles play a part, finding you never really knew your own language all that well and must learn more, dig deeper, expand contexts. In the process, who hasn’t been made fun of, laughed at – or maybe shared the joke together; or even sometimes mocked unfairly, too, at others’ expense. Speaking or writing Spanglish, for better or worse – and getting so used to it that you can’t always tell the difference?  We all need to have patience, learn to care for one another…

Probably one never reaches an end point, where one can really say “it’s over, I’ve learned, I’m finished;” – unless you yourself dig your heels in, have “had enough,” and decide, “Enough! I’ve arrived.” Perhaps one recognizable milestone, though, is when you’re no longer routinely translating, directly and awkwardly, practically word for word, but rather just speaking & thinking in it, flipping back & forth seamlessly between the two tongues.

oh, so lightsome, trippingly in the groove

It’s good to find you’re dreaming at night in this new language, where it’s natural, not strange at all. And maybe a key is getting that “taste” for the language, a love for it – when you feel and appreciate the beauty and meaning, the history and all that’s gone into it… Maybe yes, then, in a certain sense, you have indeed arrived, and everybody around you has arrived somehow, too, along with you, together.

Second-language medley          #2 – Lingo Limbo

Getting into the swing of speaking a new language, has its quite expected recognizable ups and downs and stumbling points. One has to learn the thing, in stages. At least less and less inadequately; and one has to grow into and with it, make it yours, at least to where it’s not a continual exasperating problem for one and all.

different strokes for different folks

It’s all so very multifaceted, touches so many parts of life – yet like a handful of marbles tossed to roll down a hillock, each finding its own little prepared rut, one tends to develop especially those parts one’s already naturally better at and more interested in, letting the rest of the chips fall where they may.

Drawing of multicultural kids
Different strokes, different folks

A good reader quickly learns to grasp words on pages, but maybe not how to read out-loud or speak the book-knowledge easily and understandably; while a good personable speaker may soon be comfortable in speech and with animated gestures, but unable to spell, perceive syntax, write coherently. A good reader, or good speaker, might not be a good listener; while another person almost miraculously “gets” what is said, and more, and remembers it well; perhaps can hear a poem or song, fathom the words and gist of it all, even repeat it back. Someone drawn to history and current events has that vocabulary and context at the tip of their tongue, but is wholly lacking when it comes to things technical, or of the kitchen or workshop, or of sports…

in good times and bad times

Opportunities vary, continually– each situation’s different, but none’s perfect across the board – the perfect includes the imperfect – each has different aspects of it all, good/bad, and the ready mind and attitude can always learn. Sometimes a good teacher’s at hand, sometimes not; or good reading material, or audio-visuals and a chance to hear one’s own recorded voice speaking back so queer-soundingly. Or maybe one so very, very luckily has good stimulating patient companions, a good library, or even the internet now; while sometimes it’s simply that ragged broken chance to participate with all those frustrated many many who have no one trying to help them, who find only hard, alien, unwelcome times – which also bring their own rich teaching. One finds there’s no time – now it’s here, now it’s gone — ; one just has to make use of it as effectively as one can, as it presents itself; what you didn’t do when you could is hard to make up for later.

make the most of the cards you’re dealt

The adage says, “Strike while the iron’s hot” – make that effort to communicate when it really matters, and hurts, when the others just don’t understand. When it seems your pain is being thrown in your face. When it cuts to the quick like that and isn’t merely a lackadaisical when-one’s-in-the-mood hobby, when you’re about to explode with the urgency and the need, new pathways get carved into one’s brain, get re-wired. You mis-speak words, those hard-to-get-one’s-tongue-around words, that one would just as soon avoid if one could (like pero/perro, or Spanish word gender, el/la, o/a; or, did you say “wrench” or “range”?, “great cheese” or “grated cheese”? One learns to go to the linguistic poetic graphic roots, act out meanings, find alternate expressions; or at least to spell out-loud intelligibly. Or find workarounds when people simply hard-headedly “refuse” to cooperate and understand – “it’s b as in baby or Barbara, not v as in Victor or violin.”

carpe diem (seize the day)

Importantly: – keep aware that if one can manage to take it in stride, with good will and humor, able to healthily laugh at oneself, one doesn’t create those intractable immediate problems provoked by that too common, tense underlying fearful attitude. If one’s really, really uptight, sure you’re going to mess up, that projects and immediately makes the others uptight, too — and things don’t go well.  The same goes for any number of inadequate attitudes (frivolous, dismissive, haughty…); — but a nicely musical lilting accent can even be a plus, enchanting, inviting friendship! (That is, as long as one’s also sincerely trying one’s best to learn and improve…).

Second-language medley        #3 – Plain talk

Culture shock, that wrenching in your gut, that blow to the solar plexus, does strange things to people. It happens on that journey to adjusting, embracing, engaging with that expanded challenging context. All sorts of “funny” things and tricks happen with one’s attitude and perceptions. If you get paranoid, you might think others are purposely misunderstanding you while you really are speaking wonderfully well. Well, that usually doesn’t help matters much. But then on occasion you might find yourself making a mighty (and rather painful, blundering, awful) effort to say something. While the other person calmly lets you sweat it out. They finally are deigning to let you know they perfectly speak your own birth-tongue, with all its rich down-to-earth jargony slang, and were just enjoying the show.

oops! i done did it again…

Direct translations often don’t work. One has to be able to say it differently in the two languages and cultures, having recourse to different syntax & images, but with enough similar feeling and meaning to get across what you want to say. Words and expressions may sound alike, maybe have similar etymologies, but have picked up quite different only partially overlapping meanings. This happens in conversational usage, going in both directions. Meanwhile, those handy pocket dictionaries don’t always warn you in time to avoid serious embarrassment or worse (“bárbaro” doesn’t mean “stupendous” in English, “éxito” doesn’t mean success, and “exito” doesn’t mean “the way out” in Spanish. The bilingual dictionary may say “silly” is “necio,” but if you call someone “necio,” it turns out to not be mild and innocent, but shattering, affronting. Soon you find that nice warm budding relationship has frozen over in a stiffened unforgettable instant…

keep it loose

There are so many darn rules and regulations, aren’t there?!!  And what about all the exceptions, the regional, ethnic, class special usages? — (Don’t ever say “ain’t”; but hey, “it don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing!”…) No totally perfect, complete, dictionaries, thesauruses, Google searches exist – life is too dynamic, too diverse for that. There is no totally “right” English – accents, varieties, proper to places and situations, are all enriching and natural. Or they are when used right (and they really aren’t, when used wrong, more’s the pity…) One swings between being either too rigid rule-bound judgmental, stiff and off-sounding, or going the other way. Being too slangy, with off expressions and mannerisms, using street talk in the parlor, trying to be cool, but coming off out of place…

Second language medley around the world
play acting and other trip-ups

So maybe one “compensates,” speaking too loud (so they’ll understand better…). Repeating yourself, smiling a lot (to make sure people know you’re friendly and generally harmless…). Perhaps using more gestures than normal for you… Then there’s a mental game. You find yourself “correcting”, “teaching” those “below” you who know “less”. It could be innocent and sincere, just a brotherly wish to lend a hand. But it could also be something of a power-play, for self-confirmation and a competitive put-down. Or there’s a whole particularized relationship with what one (or others) consider to be “bad” words and expressions. These could be ranging from mock shock, prudishness and misunderstanding to near obsessive fascination. Or perhaps an exaggerated adoption of “crutches” as a habit . Take, for example:

“Isn’t that right?”

“Believe it or not.”

“You read me?”

Soon one comes to be judging those who speak the tongue more. But we judge not according to one’s recently formed, more narrow views. We think: “they” speak “bad” English…

be fearlessly authentic

At least one of the “most important points,” would be to talk like “yourself.” This means using that same recognizable person you are, in both languages. That’s no mean feat! Too often we’re not comfortable enough in our own skin. We’ve got some stereotype, some image or combination of personages from films or who knows from where. We come across like some mixed-bag of caricatures, now too weak, now too strong, putting on airs. Somehow standing out like a sore thumb. In this way we are so perceptibly different than how we simply are in our own mother tongue cultural mode. Of course, there are and must be changes, adjustments to style and behavior. But if one could just keep that creepy icky other “something extra” from coming into the picture and taking over. It would be so much better for everyone…

time to take five

So now, what about you? What can you say about how you and yours, your families and friends and circles, have undergone these culture transformations? So take this as a no pressure, cordial invite; please feel welcome and free to share. We’d be delighted. We’re all ears. And we’re all in the same boat.

About the Author(s)

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Who am I? Perhaps a seeker? maybe a finder? How avoid an RIP gravestone-blurb sum-up? Challenging…Years back, crossing a remote jungle frontier, the border police, not knowing what other pigeon-hole to use, put it as “adventurer” – just an overly romantic fragment of the story, inaccurate, but hey, a good enough fit for the moment! Maybe still is? With deep roots in Cafh, on that supreme never-ending adventure... Guess I could live with that moniker on the stone.