I have been learning Spanish in fits and starts since Mrs. Gardner’s 10th-grade class. My one-semester college language requirement repeated much of the same material and sent the basics of verb conjugation, masculine/feminine, and pronunciation to my long-term memory. Over the years, I dusted off that knowledge while volunteering, playing water polo, and working in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Colombia. For the past fifteen years or so, I’ve known how to hold very basic conversations and could wade into intermediate topics if my conversation partner spoke slowly and gestured heavily.
Albert Mehrabian, a body language researcher, found that communication is 55% nonverbal, 38% vocal, and 7% words only. This tracks with my experience navigating countries where I had little grasp of the lingua franca – Thai, Italian, Nyanga (Zambia), and Cantonese (SE China). The prevalence of English all around the world has helped many a bumbling traveler, myself included. The nonverbal and vocal cues, plus the kindness and grace of strangers tend to be enough to complete routine travel tasks and desires.
The choice to travel by sailboat throws one off the beaten path of airport customs agents and hotel lobby clerks. We announce our arrival via VHF radio, which may include a crackling connection and a new-to-us Spanish accent if the passage covered many miles. We proceed to port captains and customs agents who may not encounter many English speakers and we piece together the necessary proceedings based on memory, experience from the last port, and a translation app. It feels crummy and sometimes downright irresponsible to be at a loss for words. We prepped our vessel so extensively to navigate oceans but didn’t uplevel our language skills as seriously prior to leaving the dock. We stand in delightfully air-conditioned offices, jumping through paperwork hoops and thinking, “shoot, we should really get more serious about learning Spanish”. This has been a humbling opportunity to stick with ourselves as we stumble through and improve incrementally.
Now that we’ve set down some temporary roots in Bocas, we take online classes and converse regularly with the Spanish speakers here. When I first recognized this opportunity, I queried my Facebook friends for suggestions on facilitating an English/Spanish language exchange. I got a few ideas, but have been delighted to find that the practice comes from simply living and working alongside each other. I learned to pronounce “machete” correctly while cutting down a tree and my verb conjugation has improved through kind corrections while cutting vegetables in the kitchen.
A few weeks ago, Scott and I started courses on Babbel from the absolute beginning. His learning has been predominantly situations and memorizations, and I thought revisiting the basics with some structure would be an enjoyable learning path to walk together.
We came across a new word the other night – estadounidense. These seven syllables slowed us down and we replayed several times to practice the pronunciation. This word means “person from the United States”. My previous teachings from high school, university, and other apps always leaned on “americano/a” to express this, and although I am aware that “America” extends beyond the borders of the US of A, I hadn’t wondered about another way to say this.
The next day I asked the retreat’s chef about this americano/estadounidense predicament and she replied, “si claro, tu eres estaounidense, y nosotras somos americanas”. Translation: yes of course, you are United Statesian, and we are Americans. I felt a kinship in this shared categorization with my new friend and was a bit flabbergasted by how long it took me to gain the vocabulary for these identities. I also thought of the many times I’ve proclaimed my American-ness south of the border, without precisely meaning that I too came from these continents.
1.002 billion people live on the Americas; a bit less than a third live in the United States. Together they cover 8.3% of the surface of the earth, with Canada making up the largest portion. We know all these things for sure, but back in the 1500s Italian cosmographer and explorer, Amerigo Vespucci was the first to write down that the “new world” was indeed a separate continent. The land was named in his honor, although he passed away without knowing it. America was printed on the Mercator projection, metaphorically setting our name in stone.
I wonder how the world might be different if we embraced this American identity as other continents seem to, rather than taking it as our own, separately? I say this not to breeze by the half millennia of conflict as people with my pigmentation sailed over and carved out livelihoods for themselves, nor the centuries of US interventions. There is complexity here, and a first step is learning this new word.