Volunteering Abroad: An Indelible Experience, Pt 2.
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Volunteering Abroad: An Indelible Experience, Pt 2.

Challenging my vocabulary was only the beginning.

Volunteering Abroad: An Indelible Experience, Pt 2.
Nicole Steiner

As I talked about in part one of this article, during my first week in Costa Rica, I learned a great deal about how language barriers aren’t final. I bonded with the kids and felt their acceptance, which was huge for me. But, it was in this second week that I felt the pang of what I was missing out on. I wanted to connect with the locals just as some of my other volunteer friends did, but I simply lacked the linguistic tools. I had friendship and assistance to offer, but I didn’t know how to initiate it. I realized that as much as I was connecting with the kids, I had to have another approach with the adults.

I had to do more than take my evening Spanish lessons and store those words in the back of my brain. I needed to apply them, even if sometimes I used all the wrong words. None of this disconnect could get better unless I challenged myself. No closeness could be found unless I ventured into what was familiar to others but unfamiliar to me, and found a way to connect on that territory. This week, that became thematic on so many levels.

If I wanted to be not just a teacher, but also a friend to these people, I would need to speak Spanish, even though all I recollect from the Spanish classes I had taken three years ago were a few vocabulary words, and how to conjugate verbs in the present tense.

However, it was just hours into my first day in Costa Rica when I quickly realized that my biggest problem with speaking wouldn’t be my limited Spanish vocabulary. My biggest problem was going to be my limited Spanish-speaking confidence. I thought, what if I said something stupid and they laughed at me, or worse, what if I said something offensive? Before my arrival, I’d gone through many online lessons and a whole packet of Spanish words and terms. Alas, I’d failed to read anything about the discomfort one must battle back when speaking another language.

Knowing that I would fail to sound as intelligent and clear as I might in my native tongue intimidated me. No one wants to sound inarticulate, nor to be seen by the native speakers as simple-minded, slow, and/or just plain incompetent. I was discouraged on my first day, realizing that my hesitation to speak often resulted in me not speaking at all. At the end of the week, I’m glad that I learned how to face my fear of speaking Spanish through an enlightening and encouraging experience with my English students. I noticed a pattern in them because I had felt the very same pattern going on in me.

Between the hesitations and embarrassed laughter of my students even when they spoke correctly, I realized that there was something that needed to be fixed in our classroom. Yes, my students were learning ‘coat’ and ‘belt’, and ‘where’ and ‘how often’. Yet, I could see that they felt as if they were a little bit unintelligent in our eyes. Of course, I didn’t feel that way, I understood that they were smart, and I even was craving to learn about their lives and how they see the world. However, I had no idea how to articulate this. I wished I could say, “Hey, you’re doing amazing. I know you’ve got a whole legion of Spanish words in your head and complex, wise thoughts. Just because you don’t know how to say them in my language doesn’t mean that the meaning isn’t in there, in your head.”

It was a much-needed wakeup call for me to see this:

My students felt the same fear of speaking English as I felt about speaking Spanish. If I so badly wanted them to push through their slow and jumbled English, how much more might it mean to these locals if I did the same with their language?

Part of my hesitation, I admit, was a problem of pride. I wanted to be perceived as smart and assure that I was in my own comfort zone. But I didn't come to Costa Rica to be in my comfort zone or to have others work around my language when I’m in their country. I owe it to them to give my best effort, even if I verbally stumble and metaphorically fall flat on my face. So, as scared as I still was, I practiced my Spanish the most by seeking out a local my age named Moisis who helps out with the childcare.

I asked him more about his passions and his life, and though we oftentimes were confused and ended conversations laughing at our confusion, I felt overjoyed. There was an attempt at a bond, and a quirky one established, but it was one that might not have been made at all if I’d clung onto my pride. He even taught me the word for shame in Spanish, when I tried to explain to him the feeling I didn’t want to have about my low-quality Spanish: vergüenza. I want to speak Spanish until I know no shame; until I feel no vergüenza.

Two of the defining moments of my Costa Rica experience happened when I was teaching. My teaching partner and I would cover up half of a chart, so that our students, Karla and Yeralin, had to come up with the right translation equivalent for the verb "to be" (am, is, are, etc). Well, after a while of playing this game, somehow the chart got handed over to the students, and they were struck with the idea of quizzing us on the Spanish side. Surprised, but up for the challenge, my co-teacher and I tried to remember ‘yo soy’ and ‘tu eres’.

Our students glowed. All of us laughed as we went back and forth quizzing each other, getting excited when the others got it right and having a good-humored chuckle when we didn’t. After this activity, something shifted in the room. Without knowing the words to communicate it, our students saw that we didn’t want them to feel ashamed and that they had no reason to be. We, their teachers, were undergoing the very same learning process.

Sure it felt a little silly to be so slow at saying phrases slowly that our listeners could say seamlessly, but Karla and Yeralin felt what I was feeling every day; the passionate desire for the student to keep pushing so that they could speak in the new language correctly.

I’d never had such a good time in my life teaching anyone anything.

That day, Karla and Yeralin hugged us goodbye and I knew I’d be anticipating the next (and the final) class that I’d teach with high excitement.

The second defining moment I felt when teaching was on that last day. When the end of the lesson came and we all got up to leave, I noticed that Yeralin was asking a staff member a question. It must have been a translation question because the staff member responded in slow English.

Yeralin turned to me and repeated what the staff member had translated: “I will miss you.”

I wanted to cry. The truth is, I’m going to miss Yeralin too. It sounds cliché, perhaps, but there is something about an international and unlikely connection that means something so potent and different from the easy to make connections, like my English and American friendships. I’m going to miss seeing how hard Yeralin worked and how Karla and she would help one another when they got stuck. I’ll miss witnessing how, when new students came in and they had to share a worksheet, all of the students worked together so well to supplement one another’s’ knowledge. These are such kind, hardworking people.

As much as there is trouble in El Cocal with poverty and drug abuse, there are such good souls there, who work hard and love their families and their neighbors. I have faith in these individuals, and I hope with all my heart that I will one day be able to return.

Before coming to Costa Rica, I had learned to appreciate the complexity of language in the classroom. Afterward, I have seen a brand new side of the value and awesome power of each individual language.

Now, I want to fight my way through my Spanish mistakes because of how badly I wanted my students to fight through their mistakes in English. I don’t laugh at them when they stumble, I press in. I’ve noticed that the locals do the same to me, and they appreciate the effort. It’s the willingness to step out into uncomfortable territory that makes all the difference. I’ve realized a pivotal fact within this last year, in everything from attending an out of state college, to serving abroad in a Spanish speaking country: if I’m not always doing something that scares me, I’m not growing.

Thinking of heading home in my final days in Costa Rica, I felt a great sense of loss. But I was so blessed to be able to feel this way. So many people never have or never will step out of their own country where it is easy to never challenge our own linguistic and cultural practices. I am so much better for the ways I’ve laid down my usual way of life to pick up another, and there is an unexpected sureness in my heart that I want – no, I need – to work with people, helping them, and bettering their lives in whatever way I can… and not because I’m somehow better than those people I helped, or because me offering my assistance makes me a ‘better’ person in any way, no.

I want to help people like this because I am their equal and I see their value. I want them to see it too, and I want for their highest potential to be realized all through their lifetime. That means from the days of playing sharks and minnows and twirling around, to the days when these people in El Cocal have their own families and they understand how English could help expand their opportunities

Pura Vida, as the people in Costa Rica say, as a greeting and as a response to just about anything. “Pure life” is what it means. I fully believe that I experienced Pura Vida in a most indelible way, and though I’m no longer an Alice or a Dorothy in a brand new world to explore, I sure hope that I can come here again, where the sidewalks splinter and the cats watch our team pass by, day in and day out, standing on their shady perches without a grin among them… but I swear I caught an occasional wink.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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