From Babble to Babel

If there is one thing destined to make a man feel totally hamstrung, inadequate and foolish it is not being able to express himself clearly. Nowhere is this exposed more vividly than when trying to communicate in a foreign language where one is often reduced to a frightful child-like level of sentence construction. So it was for me. To be true I had blithely assumed I would arrive, spend a week in Spanish classes and then waltz into the sunset charming the locals from the trees. That assumption was, in large part, based on my reasonably good command of French. They were neighbours after all Spain and France each with a Romance language where much would be similar. All this worked well in the classroom with the well-structured sentences of our professor the charming Sergio. However out on the street I was left aghast. What were these people saying? Everything seemed to blend into one long string of syllables and there were precious few words to extract from the mishmash to glean some sense. When I learnt that Nicaraguans drop the letter S that gave a slight marker to work with but I was still adrift in a sea of unintelligible sounds. So, away from the comfort of the classroom and out in the wider world I was a lamer duck. This was not good for Ashby.

I limped along for a while, still spending a good half hour or more a day engrossed in Spanish study. It did not seem to be getting me much further along the road to Gringo Glory. I read everything I saw around me. I listened to everything, radios, TVs, people. Any and everything was absorbed. Yet still I was reduced to conversing like a 4-year old!

Then, after a good night’s sleep in the cooler air of the Northern Highlands I awoke with a newfound sense of what went where. Words poured out of me. Not all in the right order, but they poured nonetheless. Our walking guide that day, the chatty Rodolpho, was a perfect receptacle for my freshly minted phrases. Everything was worth discussing and the more I opened my mouth the more I found that things were joining up and starting to make sense. What had happened overnight? Had everything coalesced into coherent patterns whilst I slept? New synaptic connections been forged and sparked into linguistic life?

It was a little overwhelming at times, even bordering on the near-hysterical. But Rodolpho coped admirably, correcting me as much as he could and making suggestions for better ways to express my verbosity. Often when groping around for a word I would seize on a French one and stick it in place – albeit with a Spanish accent – and many times this worked. Every now and again I would start in Spanish and then add an afterthought in French – I never said I had it all down pat! The day went on and I gradually talked myself into a linguistic impasse. It had been in various measures: exhilarating; exhausting; and hugely diverting. There is still a long way to go I know that. But I feel like I am up and staggering around now talking comfortably at the level of a 9-year old. Every opportunity to chat a little is grabbed wholeheartedly and it is amazing where this can take you. – see picture in bus. Hasta muy pronto Muchachos!


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