Saber y Conocer

Mackenzie McMillen - Ecuador

March 27, 2013

The summer before senior year I realized that after five years of French classes I could introduce myself and order a meal but that was about it. I attribute this sad fact to 70% my goofing off in class and 30% the weaknesses of the language program at my high school and junior high. I knew I was wasting my time and I also knew that AP/IB French would certainly chew me up and spit me out along with a handful of F’s.

But that wasn’t the only thing on my mind that summer. Firstly, I was eager to get my last year of high school over with but not for the same reasons as my friends who were no longer just speculating but seriously thinking about college. Though I hadn’t told this to many people I knew that for me the end of school would mark the beginning of something completely different.

I had a vague idea of what but I didn’t have a “plan” to offer when people asked about next year. Secondly, I had been reading the House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende and hearing stories about my friend’s trip to Mexico and developed a fascination with all things Latin American. A plan formed. I’d quit French and sign up for Spanish II, even though, as my friends reminded me, that would mean being literally the only Senior in a class of 30-plus 7th-9th graders (my school also had 7th and 8th graders). To catch up I’d start taking lessons from my next-door neighbor, a native of Argentina and a Spanish teacher. And I’d start looking for a way to anywhere that wasn’t the inside of a classroom. Preferably somewhere south. I had had enough of looking at pictures of places in textbooks and wanted to see the actual places.

So with a good chunk of the summer left I set my plan into motion. One morning I sat at my neighbor’s dining room table and listened as she explained the difference between the two verbs saber and conocer. Both mean to know but saber is used for facts; what time class starts or the definition of a word. Conocer, however, is used for things you can know with your senses or have actually experienced; a different country or a friend’s face. This was so poetic to me at the time. How beautiful to have different words for the things you know intellectually and things you know physically.

When I came to Ecuador this grammar concept grew into a philosophy on learning, more specifically how I want to learn and how I learn best which apparently requires a lot of conocer. For me to learn I need to contribute todo lo que conozco, all that I know, to todo lo que sé.

Now I view knowledge as a collection. You add to it through your life and you can be proud of each piece. But where you get it counts as much, if not more, than each item itself. No collector of anything, lets say exotic bird feathers would be proud to tell you that they bought their collection complete at Costco or something. The idea of a collection is that each item has a story to go with it. And with knowledge I value the story. I like being able to track my life by the things I’ve learned and connect them to memories.

With Spanish, for example, when I learn a new word oftentimes I remember the person who taught it to me or where I was or how I had to use it. This is something that hardly ever happened to me in school, this collision of saber and conocer. Here I am constantly filling my brain with information, not by sitting in lectures but by meeting people, learning from them, asking questions about the things I see and hear. Here I have context for the ideas and facts I absorb.

I know the ingredients for colada morada because I made it with my host-mom for Dia de los Difuntos. I’ve learned about Ecuadorian politics through witnessing the election and listening to the chatter around me. I know how to properly chupar (suck) a mango from when my family bought two huge wooden crates of them. And I’ve learned about different people from different parts of the world and their cultures by talking to them, seeing them dance, and joke, and cook, and care for one another.

My next plan for my future is to seize every opportunity I can to learn things the hard way and the real way.


(Photograph by John Villanueva)


Mackenzie McMillen