When I Tried Learning a Second Language While Traveling, I Realized I Was Doing It All Wrong
BEFORE WORKING IN THE PEACE CORPS in Paraguay for two years, I had never even heard of Guaraní. Guaraní is not in the Latin linguistic family tree I was familiar with. In fact, to my ears, this language sounded like it was from another planet. “Hello” is “mba’éichapa.” “Goodbye” is “jajotopata.” There are nasal harmonies and glottal stops. The “Yes” sounds like saying “he” for a long time, while holding your nose. Water is just spelled “y,” but it’s pronounced like the last sound of a drowning man.
There’s just one word for “he” and “she,” but two words for “we.” And, oh yeah, by the way, nouns change depending on who owns them. “House” is just “óga,” unless it’s yours, then it’s “róga.” If it’s his house, it’s “hóga.” And don’t get me started on negative verbs.
In Paraguay, most people technically spoke Spanish as well as the indigenous language of Guaraní, and it was common to rely on a mix called “jopara.” So for a while, I mostly tried to just learn that sister language because it sounded more similar to my own. It was still an overwhelming task, but at least I could get Spanish tutorials online, listen to podcasts, and recognize “organización” from “organization.”
But then, a year in, with all my studying in the hopes of connecting, I sat frustrated in a circle of people who all technically spoke Spanish, but still insisted on speaking Guaraní. When I would ask people what a word meant, they would repeat it, shrugging, and then just go off in Guaraní. I would descend into language learner’s rage.
Even worse, my best Peace Corps friend had started learning Guaraní way faster than me, and when she came to visit me, my status in my own town plummeted. A 3-year-old pointed at me in the street and laughed: “Sasha speaks Guaraní and you don’t!” Then she ran away.
I realized then that though I had wanted everyone to adapt to me, it was my job to adapt to them. I knew I had to try for Guaraní or it would be a long, lonely second year in my volunteer site. So I bought books. I paid a tutor. She had me studying words like as yvyty, yvytu, yvoty, and yvyra (that’s hill, wind, flower, and wood to you).
But this didn’t necessarily work either. The lessons were all too stiff, all too formal. I would learn a word, practice by myself, then when I went out in the world and tried to use it, people would look at me weirdly and say, “What? No one uses that word.” When my Paraguayan boyfriend looked at my written lessons from my tutor, he said, “Nobody writes in Guaraní. Why are you doing this?” The Guaraní I needed to understand a joke and enjoy group conversations was not getting any better.
Over time, I gradually began to realize that the way people talk in Paraguay couldn’t be learned through getting a tutor and reading books. I wanted a perfect textbook. My American mind wanted flashcards. But by doing this, I realized I was really just trying to sidestep the humiliation of real-world language learning. I hated sending a group of people into a laughing fit by trying my damnedest to practice this language. So instead, I was trying to make my mistakes in a controlled environment, in front of just one other person I paid essentially to not laugh at me.
So, I started to try just listening. Listening hard. I tolerated hour-long conversations, business meetings, church services and gossip sessions where I didn’t understand anything. I tried to go into the loneliness of that, to accept it, to just wait.
It was a rough road. For example, when someone asked me on the local radio what I like to eat and said I like bananas, forgetting that banana in Guaraní is often used as a joke meaning a similarly shaped body part.
My host family loved nothing more than to repeat the funny way I said “Ndaikuai,” or “I don’t know.”
But they also loved that I was trying, patiently, and finally listening. But slowly, the words I learned started to pop out with meaning out of the mess of syllables.
The first time I said something in Guaraní, and people didn’t laugh, there was this sensation like: “It worked!” Then for the first time I understood a joke. Then for the first time I made a joke. The function of this language — not the rules, nor the spelling, nor the accents, but the communication part — started happening, so, so slowly.
To learn this language, I had to throw myself into a wild mess. I had to let the people who used the language show me how it’s done. And, for once, I had to let myself be the idiot. (Confession: I did soothe my neurotic tendencies by creating a podcast to organize what I learned to give others a head start. I’m only an American human.)
I don’t use my Guaraní much these days, but that was never the point. What was more important was loosening myself up to crucify my ego when faced with a lesson that life has to teach, no matter what form it comes in.