Monday, September 18, 2017

Lessons in Language Learning: Don't Laugh at Cancer

Grace Costa
UPAEP, Mexico

I hadn't slept in 24 hours, my energy tank for comprehending Spanish was running on fumes, and I'd already proven myself to be a mute sponge trying to soak up the language but petrified if approached for conversation. I was invited to a weekend cabin trip to celebrate a friend's birthday in dance class. THIS WAS IT. A chance to learn every swear word in the book and play "never have I ever" in another language without winning by default because everything goes over my head.

We had a blast and I got to know some super cool cats. A pink-haired design major and a curly headed male ballerina. An actor who had a show the next week playing as Jesus Christ himself to the tune of 80's rock music. A broken-hearted 18-year old who took on a dare to mimic a chicken on a dare worthy of an academy award. The birthday boy was spun around 21 times and thrown at a giant dinosaur piƱata. Beyond the tree where the unfortunate dino was hanging, a small river was flowing through what looked like a makeshift landfill from the piles of garbage littering the banks. And that's how I discovered the reason people thought I was crazy for swimming in rivers and lakes my whole life. Even out in the countryside, the water was grossly contaminated.

In another context, this was a normal mini-vacation for a bunch of rowdy college kids, but for me it was over 24-hours of non-stop intensive social and linguistic experience. You can't imagine the terror that hit me when I realized I was surrounded by Spanish speakers with no internet connection (AKA a dictionary). Needless to say, when the 2-hour car ride back was over, I had exhausted my 5-year-old-level vocabulary and had learned enough new words to write an exam. So I'm solid if my teachers back home ever test me on the perverted double meanings of absolutely everything in Spanish and the context in which "no mames" applies.

So just before I laughed at cancer, I was having a very amicable conversation with the parents of the birthday kiddo about how they'd love to visit me in Tennessee. I explained to them in broken grammar that Tennessee has the most beautiful mountains for climbing and hiking. The mom went on to talk about her husband's pastime as an ice mountaineer and began to gesture to his stomach to articulate why he couldn't keep up the sport anymore. At this point, I already knew her to be an expressive and comical lady, so my brain put together that he could't climb anymore because he had a bit of a belly. A second too late, the thought processes that she said cancer and she was already holding up his shirt to show me an external bag on his stomach and the smile immediately evaporated from my face. I was laughing before and now I was clueless of what to say or do so I just nodded and took on a grave expression.

And this kids, is why learning a language is 50% body language and 50% of what they're actually saying so the wrong interpretation could result in you laughing in the face of a cancer survivor.