Just two weeks after I arrived in Bolivia I began daily Spanish classes with Sandra. She didn’t want to be interviewed or have photos taken, which is also why I haven’t included her surname. This Bolivian Story is to tell you about why she has been such a big part of my life here.
My first year in La Paz was difficult for me. Jean was frequently travelling for work, I didn’t know anyone and most days the only other person I spoke to was Sandra, for 1 or maybe 2 hours… in Spanish. It was exhausting. Some days I couldn’t help the warm tears from tumbling down my face as I sat in front of her, my struggles with health, loneliness and another language overwhelming me. Other days I rode her energy and my confidence grew. Every single day Sandra was patient. Her high emotional intelligence meant she adapted lessons to my mood. Her encouragement made me feel less of a loser. Her passion for teaching made me want to learn.
Throughout those lessons I also got to learn a little about her. Sandra grew up in a very large family of 7 children in the satellite city of El Alto. When she met her husband she was at university studying languages. She speaks English and French fluently despite having never left Bolivia. Soon after her marriage her husband suggested they have children but Sandra was adamant that she should finish her studies and begin her career first – she had seen too many women give up their own chances at financial security and become trapped in violent relationships with lots of children to support and no escape. So, this is what she did. By the time she was ready to consider having children her husband wasn’t ready and then years later they both decided that they were happy together without children. This is an incredible decision for a Bolivian couple. Here, having children is such an important part of the culture. I remember asking Sandra if she was worried about the future, getting old and not having children and she replied that you don’t know what the future holds so it’s best to live in the present. She continued, telling me her ideas about life that I felt I could have read from an Eckhart Tolle book. She has an inner peace and beauty that shines. I am so grateful she came into my life.
Sandra has impressed me. How does a woman who grew up in El Alto and has never left Bolivia become interested in foreign languages and become so light… and dare I say, enlightened?
I haven’t had regular Spanish classes this past year as I’ve wanted to put my time towards other projects, but I have missed my teacher and friend dearly. She helped me through that first tough year more than she could ever know and she’ll always hold a very dear place in my heart.
My time living in Bolivia, trying to learn another language, has deepened my compassion for immigrants everywhere. Of course, I chose to move here but that didn’t make it any less difficult for me. I can barely comprehend what it is like for someone fleeing their country, afraid and unsure of their future. I have traveled to many countries where I couldn’t speak the language, enjoying dabbling with new words and phrases as I tried to buy things and move around. However, longer term immersion in another culture and language has a whole different set of challenges. All the small ways I show who I am in English were completely lost in Spanish as speaking became a purely functional thing for me. I could no longer rely on my particular little niceties and subtle ways of imparting my message – no more sweet comments and playful jokes. Often I would walk away from an interaction, playing the conversation over in my head only to realise the myriad mistakes made. How ridiculous I’d feel if I said that in English, yet in Spanish I had to shrug it off and learn to move on. I had to stop worrying what people thought of me. Now, that’s making sense of things!
I remember feeling tension creep through my body whenever I’d walk out of our flat. What do I need to say? How will I say it? I would catch myself practicing sentences in my head as I walked down the street, preparing myself for each interaction as if I was about to give a presentation. This was tiring and sometimes I just wouldn’t leave home because I didn’t have the energy for it.
Something else that struck me was just how polite and patient people are here in Bolivia with a foreigner trying to speak Spanish. Too often whilst living in Australia and the UK I have heard people say things like ‘you live here, so speak our language!’ or become quickly frustrated when they don’t understand what someone wants. Here I have been met with nothing but kindness and patience. I tear up thinking about it actually – people in buses helping me find my way, shop assistants keeping calm, their kind faces trying to understand what I am saying, the occasional stranger who knows a bit of English wanting to help me. I never received a frown, a huff or a dismissal.
I am not good with languages but I am so grateful for this experience. It has been truly humbling. Some days all I wanted was to be with people, to garden or create together without the expectation of communication through language. Life can be so lonely when you can’t work or speak in the country you are in and then it’s so stressful when you have to speak. I have a dream that one day, when we are back in Australia, I will have such a space for immigrants who need to connect with people without the pressure of perfect English. I wish that the Australians and British I have heard being rude could go through this experience – losing their ability to communicate, in a sense losing their personality, relying on the kindness of others to get things done and understanding how language shapes thought.
This last point, about how language shapes thought has been incredibly insightful for me. Not just between English and Spanish speakers here but between Aymara and Spanish speakers too. Of course, this is something we can recognise between all languages. For example, in English we say you regardless of whether there’s one of you or multiple of you or if you are older than me or younger than me. But in Spanish, we immediately understand the relationship if I use the formal you or informal you… we immediately understand if there is one person or more… simply by the type of you we use. It’s impossible to ignore if you want to speak correctly.
If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend this post on the TED website, called 5 examples of how languages we speak can affect the way we think. An example they use is great for this post:
Blame and English Speakers: In the same article, Boroditsky notes that in English, we’ll often say that someone broke a vase even if it was an accident, but Spanish and Japanese speakers tend to say that the vase broke itself. Boroditsky describes a study by her student Caitlin Fausey in which English speakers were much more likely to remember who accidentally popped balloons, broke eggs, or spilled drinks in a video than Spanish or Japanese speakers. (Guilt alert!) Not only that, but there’s a correlation between a focus on agents in English and our criminal-justice bent toward punishing transgressors rather than restituting victims, Boroditsky argues.
When you begin to understand these things more deeply, through personal experience, you can open up your heart to be more patient, compassionate and tolerant of other people’s language, thoughts and ways of understanding the world.
As Sandra shared with me on many occasion, it’s important to learn grammar and correct pronunciation, but the most important thing is simply to try communicating – never ever make fun of someone trying.
Finally, to all those people who say ‘Spanish is easy!’, I’d like to share this funny clip about speaking Spanish….