La Idioma de La Vida

Toluwani Roberts - Ecuador


November 8, 2017

I’m in a “complicated relationship” with language.

I studied Spanish in school for six years. Yet when I arrived in country, I struggled to find the words to communicate with my first host family, my Spanish teachers, and my second (now permanent) host family. For example, Instead of saying “tengo hambre” (I’m hungry, or literally, I have hunger), I’d slip up and say “tengo hombre” (I have man).

Within my three weeks of adjusting to speaking Spanish–pronouncing words incorrectly or simply making words up–I was misunderstood a lot. However, these frequent moments of miscommunication weren’t new for me; I’d gotten quite used to it.

See, I’m from New York City. From 11th grade, when I attended a semester school with students around the States, to Global Launch in Stanford, I’ve lived with the understanding that a lot of my vocabulary only makes sense in the City. Even now, when I speak to my fellow Fellows in English, I’ll drop a word or a phrase that not a single person will understand. I have to search for “simpler” words to explain myself.

Here’s an example. I visited my friend McKenna last week, and after a trip to la tienda, she was telling me how surprised she was when two people in her neighborhood spoke to me using , instead of the formal usted that she was so accustomed to hearing. In Carpuela, her town, everyone uses formal conjugation with everyone; even when cursing someone out on the soccer field. In an attempt to understand and explain the switch, I said to her “I don’t know, it’s a four day weekend. Maybe they were shmizzed.” There was a moment of silence. Her facial expression went blank, then shifted to one of confusion… and then she said, “Wait, what?”

“Shmizzed” is the equivalent of “not sober.”

“Um, okay,” she replied. We laughed awkwardly and moved on to another topic.  

I love the uniqueness of my vocabulary. And I love the versatility of words, and what I can create with them.

That’s why I love language. It’s a huge reason why I chose Ecuador; to finally use and become proficient (and hopefully, fluent) in the Spanish I have studied for so long. There is so much more to learn from language than how to communicate with another person. To immerse myself in the language is to immerse myself in the culture; the two are not separate.

My Fellow friend, Maya, wrote a recent blog about how Kichwa, an indigenous language and culture in Ecuador, uses words that relate to all parts of life, and has even adapted to modern concepts. My indigenous host father told me that his people believe in the duality of all things: female and male, night and day, etc. That led me to wonder why every single noun in Spanish has a gender. Spanish doesn’t come from Kichwa, but the structure of the language reflects an aspect of Kichwa culture. Sometimes when I look up at la luna, on the nights when I can see her, these thoughts run through my mind.

As much as I love language, when communicating with others, there is a limit to how much I can bend words to express how I feel. Like the way I felt after that Pachamama ritual I participated in. I couldn’t even find the words in English… And with my limited vocabulary in Spanish, I haven’t yet gained the skill to use words as stupidly as I please; I’m still learning a lot of them.

To find the words that I do know, I have to think. Take my time. Choose my words carefully. And I can’t help but wonder if learning this new language is making me more thoughtful… or simply requires more thought.

That said, I still spend more time listening than speaking: to pick up on words and piece together the meaning from context (chupar is to drink, usually to drink alcohol) or to acquaint myself with Ecuadorian humor (“Jesus is coming. Prepara té”).

When I do speak, most of the sentences that come out my mouth are questions. And then I occasionally, and now more frequently, feel a nudge in my brain to share an observation. Or an opinion. Or something about me when I am not being questioned about who I am. Like, “Hey, I just finished this book and now I’m starting another one.” (I’ve moved on from Giovanni’s Room to the autobiography of Assata Shakur, if you’re curious. If you know who she is, you might find it unsurprisingly surprising that she is still on the FBI’s Most Wanted List).

As my heart opens up to Ecualife, slowly but surely, the part of my brain that forms words, jokes, and genuine reactions opens up too. My soul casi siempre comes out of its hiding place, to live and move where I am. This is starting to feel like home.


Toluwani Roberts