My Life in Translation: Growth in Humility
By Aaron Myers
Aaron Myers is a language coach and writer at The Everyday Language Learner. He lives in Istanbul, Turkey with his wife and two children.
It was a sunny fall day in Tijuana, Mexico. My friend Travis and I had driven dusty roads to an outlying colonia to visit an elementary school and explore how we could help with their English language program.
We’d come to Tijuana to work with the urban poor, those thousands who’d migrated from the interior of Mexico in search of a better life, of steady work and perhaps even, a chance to get across that high fenced border to the States.
The principal of the school was the wife of a local pastor we had met as we worked in the heart of Tres de Octubre, a shanty town that had sprung up overnight on steep hills that left traditional construction next to impossible. If you’re creative though, and you have a truck bed full of wooden pallets and some tar paper and are in dire need of shelter, a home can be built on almost any terrain.
Upon deciding to move to Mexico the previous autumn, I’d begun in earnest to learn Spanish on my own, devouring grammar books, creating stacks of flashcards and trying to read the newspaper or any other Spanish text I could get my hands on. I made steady progress and assumed that once I landed on Mexican soil, I’d master Spanish in a matter of months.
But when needs are pressing and when you have the time and skills to meet those needs, any desire you may have for your own goals of learning the language soon gets swept aside. Spanish lessons were soon replaced with waterproofing roofs of homes made of packing crates and solid garage doors. It was an easy choice of course and endeared us to our new friends, but my progress in Spanish stagnated. I could get by fine, but my desire was for so much more.
And so it was that fall day that Travis stood by snickering at my conversation with the principal of the school. I was trying to tell her that we would call her husband to talk about another project we could help with and didn’t at first really understand Travis’ amusement. The conversation went something like this:
“Yo a lavar su esposo.” said I.
Blank, confused look from the principal. Snicker by Travis.
Maybe my pronunciation wasn’t clear enough. And so I tried again, slower this time, more deliberate.
“YO A LAVAR SU ESPOSO.”
More confused looks. Travis moves from snickering under his breath to outright giggling - but fails to come to my rescue.
For those of you who know Spanish, you recognize that the word “lavar” means to wash.
I will wash your husband? Ahhhh!
A moment later the lights clicked on and I hastily apologized and corrected myself.
“Llamar! Yo a llamar su esposo. Llamar, no lavar!”
I was embarrassed but she was understanding, kind and smiled as she thanked us for coming. And yes, she would let her husband know that we would ‘call’.
Living cross culturally offers countless opportunities for growth in humility. It is a much desired character trait and achieved most often with a bit of humiliation. It is never fun, but in retrospect our language mishaps makes for great stories. They are also an important part of the language learning process. A friend of mine often reiterated that to learn another language you’re going to make a million mistakes - so get started!
I only made it to about a half a million mistakes in Spanish before moving to Turkey and starting all over in Turkish. Learning another language is both arduous and satisfying, frustrating and exciting and I hope you will have the opportunity to learn another in your life time.
It will change your life for the better. I know it has changed mine.