06 June 2011

Curse of the Babel Builders

I’ve always loved languages and have tried to pick up as much as possible wherever I may be, but I’m by no means an expert. Aside from speaking French, I can make pleasantries in Japanese, handle introductions in Russian, and I’m quite proficient at ordering gelato in Italian. Before I came to Costa Rica I knew a few phrases in Spanish which were not immensely helpful and were largely pop culture jokes in the states. For example the episode of Psych where Shawn stars in a telanovela to solve a crime (Clips from "Lights, Camera, Homocidio.") And I knew a lot of great vocab from Veggie Tales’ 
"Dance of the Cucumber." Seriously though, that’s how I knew the word for cucumber.

But obviously the learning curve has been pretty steep since arriving six weeks ago. I’m not sure I would call myself “conversant” in Spanish, but I’ve managed to have conversations discussing gun laws and alcohol with my Tica mom, and I can have basic conversations with most people. Language school moves much slower than I would like, but the teachers are very nice, and we do get a kick out of some of the things we are learning. Some of the funniest examples come from our phonics book which has sentences put together expressly to emphasize certain phonetic sounds, to the exclusion of logic. Enjoy some of these bizarre phrases that we have been practicing:

Ese pez es de Ester. = That fish is Esther’s.

Ursus suda mucho. = Ursus perspires a lot.

Un zuncho sucio. = A dirty metal hoop.

Había un choque en el bosque. = There was a collision in the forest.

El austere bautista bautiza al gaucho. = The austere Baptist baptizes the gaucho.

El viajero limpia a la criatura. = The traveler cleans the child.

Los ecuatorianos guardan sus cuadros y paraguas. = The Ecuadorians guard their pictures and their umbrellas.

Luis se cuida de los buitres. = Luis is careful of vultures.

Generalmente, agilizo las cosas geniales. = Generally, I speed up brilliant things.

El gerente general es gemelo y se llama Gerado. = The general manager is a twin and his name is Gerard.

Ayer el yelmo tuyo me ayudó mucho. = Yesterday your helmet helped me a lot.

El perro le ladra a Drácula. = The dog barks at Dracula.

El saludo del gladiador fue glacial. = The gladiator’s salutation was glacial.

Important things to know how to say, right? Haha. To be fair, there are also some useful sentences thrown in for practice too:

Es dificil vivir sin ti. = It is difficult to live without you.

Saldremos para el Perú, pues para allá nos manda Dios. = We will leave for Peru because God is sending us there.

Sometime this weekend I was reminded of the Bible story of the Tower of Babel. I think it was around the time Sunday afternoon that I was standing in the dirt under a palm frond bus stop in the “town” of Playa Hermosa (de Jaco). The afternoon rains moved in and my friends and I found ourselves sharing space and conversation with two Israeli college girls on vacation and two local latino men. The older man was missing teeth and muttered in unarticulated Spanish, the Israeli girls spoke some English mixed with a smattering of Spanish words with Hebrew pronunciation. We carried on conversations with both, although they were rife with misunderstandings. It happens a lot when you don’t speak a language or don’t speak it well. You may be able to communicate, but it’s often still a struggle and often involves a great deal of charades, mix-ups and confusion.

We discussed which beaches were nicest with the girls and I asked concerned questions to the local men about the bus on which we were waiting. And I thought how nice it was that, when a bus labeled “San José” went flying past without stopping, I could discuss it with the men in my limited Spanish and learn that it was a direct bus and won’t make stops, but that another bus would be along shortly, not to worry.

It’s true, there are some things that transcend a language barrier. There are elements of human communication and relationship that don’t need words. There are universals. For example, when the crazy guy on our 3.5 hour crowded bus ride home through the mountains stood up in his seat and peed out the window while we sped along, the looks on our faces and those of the Mexican girls nearby were the same. No words in any language were necessary, and you don’t have to translate shocked laughter. But for the most part, if you are going to relate, if you are going to connect with and engage with a person, you need to be able to talk to them.

Bottom line: language is important.
And, language is hard.
But that’s why we’re here.

It’s easy to get bored and frustrated, ready to get down to work and actually start doing our jobs. Classes can be tedious and sometimes when you think you’ve made a lot of progress, you have a moment when you realize you aren’t so much speaking as you are babbling. Learning a new language can be extremely humbling. You go from being a competent intelligent individual to someone who is on the same verbal level as a four year old. And in many cases the four year old will tell you when you make mistakes. And that’s why I was reminded of the story of Babel. God has been using language to humble people since almost the beginning of time! In case it’s been a while since you read it, here’s the text from Genesis 11:

 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.  As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.  They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.  Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth." But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.  Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
  So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.  That is why it was called Babel—because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Talk about some seriously lasting consequences of sin! Funny to think that today we’re still dealing with the ramifications of that one people’s sin and pride. Those Babel builders sure caused a lot of trouble for the rest of us. (At least it’s nice to have someone to blame while I’m trying to remember irregular verbs!) But in all seriousness, thank the Lord He uses things like the subjunctive to keep us humble. And, when I really don’t feel like studying, it’s helpful to remember that Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world. That’s a whole lot of people. And, more importantly, that’s a whole lot of people who need Jesus. 
He speaks Spanish. He needs Jesus.

I think that alone is a pretty good reason to spend 4 months learning to speak Spanish.

*Pray for us, and everyone at language school here in Costa Rica, that we will be diligent in our studies and grasp the language quickly.*

Playa Hermosa. An occasional weekend here also seems like a good reason to spend 4 months in Costa Rica. :-)

P.S.- This is what part of the alphabet would look like if Q and R were missing.

P.P.S.- Check out this interesting article that talks about what I sort of touched on in my last blog, about the benefits and drawbacks of life in America.

P.P.P.S- You have to love that Psych rewrites their theme song for special episodes. Here it is in Spanish!

1 comment:

  1. I can testify that living in a foreign country without knowing the language makes life quite interesting and more difficult than necessary. Now that we are on a bit of a summer break I'm hoping to delve into the world of Russian language (aghhhhh). Such good insights you have. Praying for you as you learn Spanish and try not to be bored :)

    Oh and you get extra cool points for siting Psych and VeggieTales