It’s Like We’re Speaking Two Different Languages

When I went back to Samoa, I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly (and how much of) the language came back to me. Actually, I was amazed by it. I slipped into old habits of verbal and nonverbal communication styles without intentionally doing so. It was thoughtless, effortless. While that was tremendously useful when I was on the island, my Samoan unfortunately has limited applicability here in the United States, and particularly so in North Carolina (the complete opposite coast from the larger ethnically Samoan pockets). I have always considered speaking a second language as something to facilitate my work, but speaking Samoan doesn’t help me provide services to more people when such a small percentage of the local population identifies as Samoan that the number was too small to be reported in the 2010 census.

Long ago, I made a deal with myself that if I found a career in the United States, I would learn Spanish. Well, now I have a career in the United States and I have yet to learn Spanish. (I have 8 million excuses for why that can’t/won’t happen right now, but that’s an entirely different story. One thing at a time). However, there are a few staff members in my office that speak Spanish, and I have a few volunteers that speak Spanish. One of those volunteers is particularly patient with me when I try to use the 12 words of Spanish I know to communicate with her. Our conversations go something like this:

Her: Spanish, Spanish, Spanish (at a slow pace with exaggerated hand movements and facial expressions)
Me: English, thinking really hard, one Spanish word, trailing off…
Her: Spanish, Spanish, Spanish (same as before)
Me: Samoan, one Spanish word, confusion, Samoan
Her: Spanish, some confusion, Spanish
Me: Samoan, thinking really hard, brain melt, more Samoan

These interactions inevitably disintegrate into two entirely different languages. She doesn’t recognize that I’m speaking Samoan because I’ve been trying so hard to speak (or at least understand) Spanish, and once my brain shifts gears into Samoan, all hope is lost. The harder I try to explain myself in English, the more my brain becomes entrenched in Samoan, and the effort put into reestablishing some level of communication instead only sustains the language barrier.

Aside from the intense mental energy required for these conversations, I find them highly amusing. It seems absurd to me that we can end up trying to communicate in two entirely different and unrelated languages, yet still seem to have some sense of understanding. I also enjoy the  challenge they present, which I haven’t really experienced since I first started learning Samoan in the early weeks of my time in Peace Corps (almost 5 years ago!). Mostly, though, I appreciate her patience and good humor in trying to teach me new Spanish words to add to my limited vocabulary. Every little bit helps, right?

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1 Comment

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One response to “It’s Like We’re Speaking Two Different Languages

  1. It’s interesting how the mind gets stuck in a particular language path. I remember one incident when I lived in Spain at a group gathering when I was headed to ask a question of a Spanish friend. I got her attention and was just about to ask her my question when I was interrupted by some American visitors asking me a question. She indicated that she would wait for me to answer their question first so I went to answer their question, which had been in English, and my answer came out in Spanish! I paused, did a mental reset, and answered their question in English. I quickly finished up that interaction then turned back to my friend to ask my original question which I previously had fully formed in Spanish in my brain. This time, though, my question came out it English! It was like I had 2 modes in my brain: Spanish and English and there was an internal switch that needed to be flipped before my words came out in that language. It sounds like for you, that Spanish hasn’t quite yet got it’s own mode in your head. It’s still floating around in the Samoan mode (or perhaps the “not English” mode). Hopefully more practice will help with that. ¡Buena suerte!

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