Learning to speak Español isn't always easy

Volunteer Elizabeth Lanham's working at NPH Guatemala's medical clinic and learning Spanish at the same time!
August 17, 2016 - Guatemala

Hard at work at the clinic

Saying foreign languages don’t come easily to me is an understatement. After two years of college level Spanish classes and six weeks in Spain, my ability to understand was zilch, and my ability to speak was limited. I arrived in Guatemala one week before orientation with the intent to take Spanish classes in Antigua, a twenty-minute bus ride away from NPH.

I remember being picked up at the airport by two Guatemalans who didn’t speak English. They chatted the entire way back, occasionally asking me questions. Every once in a while I’d grasp the occasional noun like “país” (country) or understand a trite phrase like “Cómo te llamas?” and be able to answer, but overall that first car ride was overwhelming.

My job here is pretty fun and not very complicated. I work in the clinic and don’t get me wrong, it can get pretty busy…like the day I was working solo and fifteen kids came in with strep throat at the same time. But compared to my old job in an Emergency Department, this place is pretty low key. The trial came with the language. My first week I cried at least once a day because I really wanted to understand! I wanted to help! I wanted to work! But I couldn’t. I was so incompetent, not because I couldn’t do the work, but rather because I couldn’t understand what they were asking me to do!

I remember that first day I was sitting at the computer while someone tried to explain the electronic medical records to me. I became teary because I was so overwhelmed with my inability to understand. The year of service kid came up to me and patted me on the shoulder. I’m not sure what he said exactly but it amounted to, “Don’t worry. You’ll get it.” Then he said the phrase that would become my mantra over the next six months, “Poco a poco,” or “little by little.”

They were right. It was painful, but I stuck with it. Over the past six months I’ve learned what I would call a functional Spanish. I can function and communicate. I am able to call people on the phone, a feat that seemed impossible in the beginning, and make requests. It came in small batches, and started with expanding my vocabulary through practice and circumstances. I learned the words I needed in the clinic, the house, playing sports and shopping because I worked in the clinic, lived in my house, played sports and went shopping.

I was also surrounded by very patient, very friendly people. To this day, I immediately ask someone to repeat something I don’t understand. When I am given a request I repeat it back to make sure I understand what the person wants. Too many times I learned the hard way that I might think I understand, but I am completely wrong. Like the time the doctor asked me to cancel her first appointment of the day and I thought she wanted me to keep that one and cancel the other five. Yes, that happened.

The one thing that made those early days easier (besides the amazing people I work with) was my section. I was assigned the special needs kids section and honestly, with those kids, you don’t even need words. A smile and a hug is enough. When we do speak, they could care less if my verb tense is correct or if I mess up ‘para for por’. Love is its own language, and I have definitely found a place that speaks it. God is good!

Elizabeth Lanham   




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