Our Salt Flat tour guide, Victor, only spoke Spanish. We luckily had Sylvia with us, a native Bolivian who was fluent in both Spanish and English, but it was still Sylvia’s vacation so we couldn’t expect her to serve as our translator the whole time. So I tried to listen to and pick up on as much as I could from what Victor told us.
I understood more than I even knew was possible. Suddenly I was translating to other people in my group. “We’re at over 3500 m elevation right now. The volcano over there is still active, and the rocks in front of us are formed from petrified lava.” Where the hell did that come from? I only took Spanish in 7th and 8th grade and we did not learn these words.
As I continue to travel around Spanish speaking countries, I’m finding that I’m able to understand quite a bit more than I expected. I have a few theories on why this is. For starters, somewhere in the recesses of my mind the little Spanish that I learned when I was a teenager is still there. That’s a fairly young age to learn a new language so things stuck easier then. And now this has formed a base for picking up more words.
More so, I think having experience with a second language in general has helped. Not that knowing German is actually useful in South America, but I have figured out how to pick up the gist of what someone is saying by knowing some words and contextual clues. Although sometimes I do throw in German words when I’m attempting to speak Spanish. I think my brain defaults to “not English” and chooses the next language it knows.
I also try to speak it whenever I can, even if it is just a few words awkwardly strung together. I would rather try to converse in Spanish than just be another monolingual American. I think because I don’t really know Spanish I am able to throw caution to the wind and try to find any words and gestures I can to convey what I am trying to say. Unlike German, which I’m supposed to know well so I get too self-conscious to speak it.
This is just a theory, but I think it all combined into me becoming a sort of translator on a few occasions. Starting with the Salt Flat tour, when 4 out of 6 of us didn’t understand any Spanish, and continuing on to future cities with other English speakers.
I do still wish I knew more Spanish and had worked on it more before and during my time in South America, but at the very least I feel like I can get around now. It’s kind of fascinating to think about what the mind can pick up – like the three different kinds of flamingos in Bolivia and how to tell them apart.