There’s something to be said for silence. An under-appreciated phenomenon, silence can flood a person with more information than any lecture, encyclopedia, or Wikipedia article ever could. We so often overlook this because we are too busy shoveling sound into every conversation gap we find. We constantly offer filler words and jokes in between every sentence. Perhaps we feel a responsibility to entertain others and keep them interested or conversely we require that they make us feel as if our time was not wasted. Either way we talk and talk and talk spilling words like pennies on the street not worth the effort it takes to pick them up. It was only here, in a country where nothing is wasted that I learned to communicate.
Looking back, I don’t think I realized the consequences in coming to a Latin American country with absolutely zero knowledge of Spanish. I was an AP student and a member of the National Honors Society. My mom told me I had an affinity for languages! I was going to be fine! The second I met my host family however, none of that mattered. I went from being a moderately intelligent individual, to a completely incompetent and mute lump of flesh. I was absolutely miserable. I couldn’t cook, clean, or speak and as nice as they were, my family was understandably concerned and probably a little miffed. How were we supposed to develop a meaningful relationship when I clearly didn’t understand a word they said? I would hide in my room conjugating verbs and carefully planning out some sentences to say, desperately trying to learn and kicking myself for choosing to study Italian for six years. But, after three painful months, I finally became intelligible.
Now, while I am by no means fluent, I am competent enough to crack jokes, use sarcasm, and hold meaningful conversations with the people in my life. The only catch is that I still find myself pausing to think before I speak to ensure that my verbs are correct and my nouns are in place. My vocabulary is limited so I must fit together what I have and make it work to my advantage. I carefully formulate my responses and slowly introduce new words where they are applicable. Needless to say, the process is a bit tedious and I often find myself drenched in a wonderfully gelatinous silence. And I love it. I sit with the quiet and let it fill me, taking a moment to fully appreciate the fact that I have managed to communicate a thought in another language and look forward to my next opportunity to piece a sentence together. Every time I open my mouth I am treated to a grand crossword puzzle the likes of which Will Shortz has never even conceived. And the best part is that my newfound way of speaking has bled over into my English conversations.
When speaking with friends now, I find myself stopping to painstakingly digest my words before saying them. I pause to breathe and consider my thoughts in the same way that I mentally arreglar my Spanish. I don’t feel the need to fill every silence. I have found the patience and peace to be able to accept myself as I am rather than relying on grades and awards to dictate how others perceive me. In the eyes of an Ecuadorian, I am far from intelligent. And I don’t mind. I am learning and growing and expanding to fill the universe and I could not have done it without starting from square one. I was brimming in the weeks before I came to Ecuador, empty when I arrived, and am slowly filling again as the weeks tick by. I revel in every silence because it is another moment behind me. A reminder of just how short this experience is and of how much I have been changed by it. I am continuously humbled by pharmacy clerks who don’t quite understand my wild gestures signifying “band-aid” or by family members who are confused by my assertions that yes, macaroni and cheese is supposed to be this color. And I fear that when I return in April and these things cease to be a challenge, I will lose a bit of perspective. So I need to breathe now and hold on to this moment as long as I can. I must use this quiet to remind myself of who I am and what I have done and I encourage you to do the same. For we too often are deafened by our own ruckus and refuse to appreciate all that is contained in a golden second of silence.