Monday, 15 December 2008

Speaking in tongues

We’ve just returned from a trip to Guatemala where we attended an immersion Spanish language school for two weeks. For the first week we lived with a Guatemalan family to enhance our learning and get to understand the culture a little more.

My Spanish language skills have certainly improved. The most interesting part of the trip for me, however, was experiencing what happens when you are required to communicate in a foreign language. At first, you can only catch snippets of others conversations, and can’t join in. As you improve, you can converse simplistically and communicate enough to function in life. However, I and my fellow international students never got past the point where we conversed about anything but stories, requests, likes and dislikes. Our interactions with each other and with locals never got beneath surface exchanges of practical information. I found this to be excruciatingly frustrating.

There is one obvious reason for the monomolecular depth of our interactions. We simply didn’t have the vocabulary, or the practised command of the language, to make ourselves understood. But on reflection, deeper than that, I think, lies the issue of cultural differences. To be able to communicate fully around foundational beliefs and feelings I think you need some form of “cultural resonance”. Far greater than the language gap, the cultural dissonances between Mexico / Guatemala and the societies with which we are familiar limit the extent to which we can truly understand each other.

The use of the Spanish language in both Mexico and Guatemala hints at the culture gap. Both countries use subjunctive tenses pervasively to infer uncertainty about future outcomes, to be less direct about requests of others, to allow that you yourself may not have full knowledge and to avoid, at all costs, having others lose face. Perhaps this (and the easily observed reluctance to ever say "no" to your requests, even if they have no intention of taking action) comes from a history of oppression. Whatever its source, the cultural attitude permeates society. In England, the use of subjunctive is almost dead, and in North America, the “no holds barred” approach to business hardly allows for the existence of such a form of language.

So there were specific reasons for the challenges in communication in Guatemala. My frustration with the narrative flavour of my interactions was, I suspect, however, magnified by echoes of some challenges when interacting with English-speaking people in both Todos Santos and Comox. In these cases, the lack of depth of interactions can hardly be blamed on linguistic dexterity. Leaving aside those cases where we simply don’t like each other, I am led to ponder whether more subtle cultural disparities are often at play. We have found it strange that we often seem to “click” more easily with Canadians in Todos Santos than with some others. Although Canadians and Americans share the same continent (and are immersed in the same onslaught of media), the longer we spend together, the more fundamental the differences in general belief systems appear to us. As a simple example, Canadians may complain about taxes, but most of us do expect to be taxed in order that at least some of the inequities in society can be addressed. We have been surprised to see that many American friends, though delightful people and models of integrity, compassion and charity in their personal lives, see nothing wrong in evading taxes. Such core differences in beliefs can make it difficult to communicate heart to heart.

And why would I have problems in Comox? After all, there are few “foreigners” in Comox, so surely we have a common cultural base? Of course, part of the issue is that my expectations are often unreasonable. Some people just don’t like to open up quickly to others, while I demand instant connections. In other cases, though, I wonder if it is still cultural differences that are pulling the strings. We moved to Comox from Calgary, Alberta, a hotbed of belief in personal initiative and in the ability for anyone to do anything, given an idea and commitment. British Columbia has a long history of belief in benevolent government and organizations to protect people against the (admittedly real) ravages of rampant capitalism. Such core attitudes do not always mix well and allow effective sharing of feelings!

All this would suggest that the safe approach to life is to surround yourself with locally-bred clones. That may be safe, but it isn’t life. Exposing yourself to different world beliefs and different people may be uncomfortable, but it forces you to challenge your own beliefs, to think about who you are, and therefore to grow. But I suspect that I may still be left with an unresolved thirst for connection.

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