The most humbling thing I’ve ever done…

Posted on August 15, 2013 by




I’m pretty sure the most humbling thing I’ve ever done is to try to learn a new language.

As Emily mentioned last week, intensive work on language learning is our primary focus in August. The process of learning a language is bound to have its awkward moments. Before you can have big, elaborate conversations in Spanish, you have to be able to speak like a child. And it can be pretty humbling, as a grown man, to speak to someone like a child.

A story may illustrate best:

We needed a flyswatter. Since we didn’t know the word for flyswatter (not one of the first 4,000 words you typically learn in a new language), we asked the attendant at our neighborhood pool. He gave us the word: “matamoscas.” I promptly forgot it.

So I went to the corner store looking for a flyswatter, hoping I could find it on my own. No luck. I tried to remember that word… Was it metatosas? Macachosas?

The tendency is to think that if you just say something “close,” people will surely get it. A little bit of mispronunciation can’t be that big of a deal. That’s not a great assumption. To illustrate: a Spanish-speaking friend recently tried to tell us her favorite foods in English. She told us they were jump and soap. Any guesses? I’ll give you time to think and give the answer below… Would you call those “minor mispronunciations” small or large hindrances to understanding?

Back to the flyswatter. I decided I’d just need to swallow my pride, grin foolishly charmingly, and try to explain what I needed to the clerk. I think I said something to the effect of, “I’m going to need something to hit things.” I did the universal “fly-swat” motion and sound effect as a complement.

He looked at me strangely, then a light bulb seemed to go off and he led me down an aisle where he proudly held up a hammer. “¿Sí?” “Hmmm… no.”

I had tried to say “los insectos,” but that didn’t seem to be working out. So then, in a great crowning moment, I — a grown man in a store — looked at this grown man working in a store, lifted my hands up beside my shoulders, fluttered them, and went, “Bzzzzzz.”

I don’t think the gravity of that moment — all of the pride swallowed and dignity trampled — hit me until later.

But it worked! The man had a look of instant understanding and rushed me to another aisle where he pulled out a…

… butterfly net.

Well darn. I told him we were closer, but not quite there yet. Then I said, “mortir!” and did the universal flyswat motion and sound effect again. I said “mortir” because I don’t know the word for “to kill,” so I figured “to die” would do. Sadly, I missed that one, too. It’s just “morir.” Give me a written test on these things, and I can do okay. In the heat of the moment, though, you never know what (non)-word might come out, which syllable you might put the accent on, or which verb tense you might use.

Thankfully, the kind store clerk again seemed to have a flash of understanding and rushed me to the flyswatters. I thanked him profusely and asked what it was called. He told me. I forgot again. I had to look it up to write this. Matamoscas…

We asked you earlier to pray for our language learning. Again, please do that. We know it’s critically important to have conversations that lead to quicker understanding than the one above.

The Holy Spirit came on people at Pentecost in such a way that they heard languages they didn’t know and yet understood them. They spoke to others who didn’t know their language, and yet they were heard and understood. We’re praying that God will give us the grace to hear and speak the Spanish language in such a way that we will understand and be understood. And we’re praying that especially in any opportunities to hear others’ stories and witness to the love of God, we might have a special measure of grace — a supernatural ability to hear and speak the language that we know goes further than our natural understanding.

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Oh – our friend’s two favorite foods: jump and soap… those were ham (jamón in Spanish) and soup. See how a small difference in pronunciation can be a pretty big barrier to effective communication? And those came from someone much further along in her English than we are in our Spanish.

The kids doing their best "fly" look

The kids doing their best “fly” look

Posted in: Sabbatical year