Lost in Translation

Jordan Kendall - Ecuador


September 25, 2017

Since embarking on my journey with Global Citizen Year, language became one of the things I thought about most often. Part of me was absolutely shaken to the core, knowing that I would be forced into a new culture without my primary form of expression. Whenever these thoughts came into my mind, I could feel my anxiety flare up. My heart would beat uncontrollably, almost as if it would jump right out of my chest. My hands would get clammy. I would start to sweat. The easiest way to suppress these thoughts was to simply become in denial. “Don’t worry! Everything will be fine,” I tried to reassure myself. “You have already learned two other languages, one more should be a piece of cake!” Then I remembered how difficult it was for me to learn French. My anxiety would creep back up as I recalled those grueling days of high school, with my desk covered in flash cards, trying to remember the difference between passé composé and past imperfect tenses.

I was told that immersion would make language learning easier, since I would have no choice but to live in Spanish world. Immediately after arriving in Quito, I realized that “easier” did not mean “easy”. As soon as I went to say something, I would realize that a) I didn’t know enough vocab to actually convey anything, and b) I couldn’t conjugate any verbs. This meant that communication was nearly impossible. I had to rely on pointing to objects and repeating “como se dice?” to try to learn the names of things as well as acting things out charades-style to try to inform my host mom on what I would be doing and where I would be throughout the day. Despite my best efforts, I would later find out that my host mom had frantically called Lucia, my team leader, several times not knowing where I was or when I was coming home. I often had to call her and attempt to inform her that I was safe through broken Spanish phrases, which was even more difficult over the phone than it was in person.

Fast forward to moving in with my permanent host family in Sigsig, Azuay. I distinctly remember my first full day alone with them. My host sister, Camila, decided to bring me to the market with some of her friends. Not wanting to embarrass myself, I stayed relatively quiet. However, whenever they would ask me questions, I would have no choice but to simply stare back at them since I had absolutely no idea what anyone was saying. Even with the miniscule bit of Spanish I knew, I was still able to understand that they consistently made jokes about me and my limited language skills. Somewhat defeated, I began to question my intentions of coming to Ecuador to begin with. I regretted not studying Spanish more vigorously in the summer prior to our departure.

“How am I supposed to thrive here if I can’t even communicate?”

These thoughts became more present in my mind as I felt myself starting to give up on connecting with my new family and their culture. I was increasingly more inclined to shut myself in my room. However, the practical part of me knew that this would only inhibit my ability to grow, and after all, that was the reason I decided to take on this challenge in the first place. I forced myself out of bed, shut off Netflix, and made an executive decision to be a more active member in my family and in the community. Over the next few days I tried to stay off my phone as much as possible and began speaking more, even if it meant making countless mistakes and looking like an absolute fool when I got laughed at. Nevertheless, I noticed myself learning more quickly, which further motivated me to speak at every opportunity. Camila and I would walk around the town, and she would teach me the names to everything around us. I would also attempt to teach myself more conjugations, which has noticeably helped my ability to speak. While communication is still by no means easy for me, I have made an immense improvement and I can’t wait to become more proficient as the year progresses.

Jordan Kendall