One day during my second immersion, a Mexican couple surprised me by asking for directions to a street in Puebla. I knew the street and gave directions. ‘Can’t they tell I’m a foreigner?’ I wondered afterwards. Why did they ask me? And it’s happened many times more. I suppose the couple saw me dressed like other men in Puebla, walking confidently, the way a resident walks to a destination. They saw me as part of the social context.
Social context is our environment of the moment. Becoming comfortable in it is one key to “feeling” the language. If we’re comfortable in our social context, then we’re less likely to feel self-conscious, and more likely to act confidently. And speak confidently.
Becoming confident in a new social context may take some practice, but the skills can be mastered quickly, if you haven’t mastered them already. This exercise is about finding confidence and expanding the social “comfort zone.”
Try this: Spend a day or two watching people: Notice how they greet each other, their gestures, inclinations of the head, tone of voice. Notice how they dress (or look at photos of your desstination). Make a habit of observation, and then dress and act to ‘blend in’ as best your can. This may feel like acting, and to some degree it is. But you are the actor and primary audience. After the performance, you will feel more comfortable and speak more confidently.
Along the way, try to pick up clues to the “mentality” of the culture. English and Spanish languages operate according to different mentalities. You may notice that Mexican Spanish is very physical; people talk with hands, gestures, and expressions more than many Americans do. As I learned in my second immersion, Mexican conversations seem more ‘circular’ in nature than ‘linear.’ That is, in Mexico there is a fuller expression of each speaker’s personal or inner reality and opinion; whereas in American English the conversation as a more exterior reality with a focus on the ‘facts’ and analysis of the subject.
To a degree, these differences are somewhat ‘hard-wired’ from experience. I co-chair the parish council of a Hispanic congregation. There are time during our meetings when the conversation goes round and round, and I’m impatient to reach a conclusion. That’s when I realize I’ve drifted outside the cultural context and I’m subconsciously thinking like an American, and not a Mexican. Then I need to sit back, relax, and rejoin the culture. Everyone is exploring the subject from their personal point of view, perhaps through a series of overlapping expressions that reaches a consensus.
Try this: Listen closely to English conversations to notice whether the focus is on the speaker’s inner realities or is the forcus principally on facts, data, and analysis. If its the latter, can you think of a way to convey the same information more subjectively, in story form? And would anyone believe you if you did?
I started the third immersion, knowing that to speak Spanish like a Mexican I had to think like a Mexican. American and Mexican cultures differ in many respects, and these can subtly influence syntax and grammar. Understanding if not acquiring something of the mentality can help you speak – if not like a native – with greater precision. Relationships between things are expressed differently and sometimes indirectly. It’s common to say (in Spanish) “Me da mucho gusto recibir tu carta,” that is, It gave me much pleasure to receive your letter. Recieving gave me the pleasure. Whereas in English, I might say, “I was happy to get your letter.” Notice the verb focuses on me, The differences are subtle, but real. If we came upon someone crying, we would probably say: “What happened?” in English. But in Spanish, we might say: “Did something happen to you?” The English version comes off more as interogation; the Spanish is more an indirect question. Subtle but important.
Think of becoming comfortable in the context as an integral part of the language – which it is. But – and there is always a but – but you can’t escape being obvious in every social situation. And in those situations, making yourself comfortable despite standing out, can work to advantage.
This weekend I took a bus to Tlaxiaco, a city of 60,000 in the mountains northwest of Oaxaca. This is a Mixteco region where many speak Spanish as their second language. I went there to see the large Saturday market or “tianguis” that draws hundreds of vendors and buyers from the surrounding towns. Tlaxiaco is a regional crossroads and economic hub. Like mushrooms, temporary tiendas rose overnight, filling the streets and plaza around the town’s clock tower; merchants did brisk business all day with local residentss (few to no tourists), and vanished with the night. I spent the day among the stalls and tents, visiting with vendors and artisans.
On Saturday, I seemed to be the only “guero” or white person in town; I knew I stood out, and there was no way to ‘blend in’ as do in Puebla. Very quickly, I discovered that ‘standing out’ can work to advantage. People are inherently curious and wanted to know where I lived, did I have family, did I like it in Tlaxiaco, etc. In short, their curiosity is an open invitation to conversation. It was a gift to you. If offered to you: Take it!
During the course of seven hours, I visited with dozen vendors for more than fifteen minutes at a time. From vendors and artisans I learned things not found in guidebooks. People told me bits about their personal history, a cousin who works in North Carolina, their own brief sojourn in the U.S., their family, their work. Their openness make me comfortable because they were as interested in me as I was in them. Each encounter made me more at home in Tlaxiaco.
Men do the heavy lifting of erecting the tiendas, but it’s the women who run the tianguis. When I came upon two women smashing white rocks into small pieces, and bagging them for sale, I had to ask a question. The older woman in a straw hat told me they were breaking up marl for cooking with the corn for tamales. “This is a special rock,” she said. The rock is largely calcium and it dissolves when boiled with the corn used in making the masa or dough for tortillas. I left them knowing more than I had before.
Later, I sopped at a large stand of chilis in burlap bags, and took a deep breath to savor the scent. The woman asked what I wished to buy. Nothing, I said, and added that I stopped to admire her wares and inhale the scent of chilis. This led to questions and answers about the kinds of chilis and the dishes in which they’re the key ingredient. As I turned to leave, she gave me a handful of chilis as a gift.
More conversations followed with a woman who sold barks, leaves, and seeds as homeopathic cures for practially anything. Each box of product labeled with a list of physical conditions the bark or leaf relieved, from headaches to anxiety to diabites. Several vendors invited me to taste the fruits and other foods, many knew to me. And always, informal conversation, questions asked and answered, a reality explored.
I ended by day talking with two Mixteco women, mother and daughter, sitting on a mat cleaning ‘aho’ or garlic and twinning the stems together, six garlic to a bunch. Their question whether I wished to buy led to conversation and questions. Before long, I was sitting on the plaza with them, and we were talking about our respective lives, families, and experiences. The older woman, who gave her age as 80, had a soft voice and warm smile. She lived nearby, her family raised garlic and other fruits. Her daughter worked with her. She told me, with some sadness, that her grandchildren didn’t want to learn or speak Mixteco, which is her first language. They wanted only Spanish. Without her saying so, it begged the question: “Who will carry on the culture?” Who will take a tongue and culture of several thousand years into the twenty-first century?
That’s Tlaxiaco. The sights, the sounds, and the smells of the ‘tiagnuis’ are lovely and fascinating on the surface. But richer still is the connection of the tianguis to the place itself, and to the people of Tlaxiaco. It’s in the organic connections of people to the place, and the place to the tianguis that the culture and languages – Mixteco and Spanish – live and evolve. The Spanish of Tlaxiaco isn’t textbook Spanish, its a working language of slang and jargon and Mixteco words rooted in time and place and, hopefully, a future.