Language Barriers: success and failure, but mostly failure

Ick-bin-ein-BerlinerTo be fair, I couldn’t speak much Spanish when I left Australia, besides the standard, “hola”, “gracias”, “dónde está la biblioteca?” and “dame una cerveza”. But I since I arrived I have been pretty diligently studying what to say in situations such as going to the bank, the supermarket, the post office, ordering at a restaurant and many other encounters one would face on a daily or weekly basis when moving to another country, and then going out to practice said situations.

The most important lesson I’ve learned so far is that situations hardly ever play out like they do in the textbooks.

I went to the bank the other day to change my password so I could access my online banking. On the way there I practiced over and over “Hola, necesito cambiar mi clave para transfirir por internet” and the possible questions the banker could ask me which I’d neatly limited to: what’s your ID number; choose your new password; sign here; can I help you with anything else; and have a nice day. What could go wrong? José and I got to the counter, I said my line, and what followed was a stream of Spanish that I could not comprehend for the life of me. What was this guy saying? I admitted defeat and let José take the reins. When we left the bank, José told me the guy was trying to sell me insurance for 2 lucas per month because my account wasn’t secure enough and people could steal my money or something. They don’t prepare you for THAT in Spanish 101.

I’ve also found that if someone asks me something I’m not expecting to hear, then my brain doesn’t make the right connections and I don’t understand them, even if it’s the simplest of questions. José had previously told me not to worry about bringing my passport or ID to clubs and bars because no one asks for ID in Chile. Although I get carded all the time in Australia, I put that idea out of my mind and enjoyed being able to freely enter a venue without being hassled by security. On one occasion, we were buying supplies for an “asado” (BBQ) with some friends of José and I thought I’d chip in by buying a slab of beer. At the cash register I was expecting the formulaic interaction: how much does that cost? I would like to pay in cash. No, don’t give me more bloody plastic I brought my own, reusable, environmentally friendly bag with a picture of a cute animal hugging the earth on it, thank you very much… Here’s your receipt. But the first thing she asked me was “cuanto años tiene usted?” I was baffled. I had no idea what she was saying. She threw me off so badly I didn’t know what to do. So I did the worst possible thing I could do in such a situation: I ignored her completely. After a few seconds of me looking awkwardly through my purse, José once again came to the rescue and bought the beer for me. Afterwards, he told me she had wanted to know how old I was. How did I miss that? I thought. It’s the first damn thing they teach you in the text book!!!

One of the best experiences I’ve had in Chile so far was when I went to the post office to post some documents to Australia. I walked up to the counter and said (in Spanish of course):

“Hi, I’d like to post this to Australia, please”

“What are they?” the women at the teller asked.

“Documents” I replied, with confidence.

“Is the return address written on the envelope?” She inquired, obviously understanding me perfectly.

“Yes, right there” I pointed to the back of the envelope for dramatic effect. “How much does that cost?”

“6000 pesos for normal post which takes 10 days, or you can send it by express. Which would you prefer?” She asked. I sensed that she was challenging me, feeding me such a complex sentence with multiple parts. But I wasn’t fooled. I had this downpat!

“Normal, please, ten days is just fine.” I responded, trying not to sound too pleased with myself, but secretly floating on top of my narcissistic cloud of smug.

“Ok all done.”

“Thanks.” I left feeling like a king. One day I will be able to walk into a shop without dreading that the attendant might talk to me. But for now, it’s those little wins that make it all worth while.


One thought on “Language Barriers: success and failure, but mostly failure

  1. Barbara Hodecker says:

    You’re going to be fine!!! =D Sometimes it’s so frustrating when we can’t understanding any single simple word, but trust me, every thing is gonna be alright! You are doing very well! The most difficult part for me, was when I was talking on my cellphone! I could not understand anything! Sooooo hard!!! lol


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