Lessons From a Dog

Lessons From a Dog

Me (as I’m waving my phone around): “I’m trying to find the best internet signal.”

Will: “It’s back in the United States.”

Once again, trying to make time to post. Half of this was written in September, October managed to escape me, now we’re here… Also, lots of pictures were taken in that time!

Something clicked. It took about six weeks, but something finally did click. Learning Spanish has always been a struggle for me. I love the concept of learning a different language. I love the benefits of it. I admire people who speak multiple languages. But, for me, learning a second language has always been difficult (not saying that it is easy for everyone else).

The first month here I did not really feel much different than what I felt in classes. I would show up, there would be a lesson, I would learn something but I would forget it by the time I walked to the car. As if this language was all a system of facts or a list of things I was memorizing. Instead of classes though, here I was learning these things from everyday life and constant repetition; really, this is no different from my classes back in the States.

Then it happened, I associated an idea with a word. But, not a word in English, Spanish! This is how I knew some neuron in my brain finally hooked up to the proper path. This is me truly learning the language, and not just remembering facts. Up until now, my Spanish language ability consisted of the following: I look at a red, small-sized fruit with a bunch of tiny seeds on the outside, the English word for this is ‘strawberry,’ and since I am trying to speak Spanish I remember that the word for ‘strawberry’ in Spanish is ‘fresa.’ However, in local Mendoza vocab they call strawberries ‘frutillas,’ therefore I am looking at a frutilla. This is not learning a language, this is memorizing facts.

This is science

So, when I realized I could think of an idea in Spanish without first translating it from English I was beyond excited! I have absolutely no clue how this all works, and the following is definitely wrong, but this is what I think is going on in my head:

More science

I first noticed it with numbers, and this doesn’t surprise me. Numbers, like letters, represent an idea. The difference is that numbers represent the same ideas in both English and Spanish. When I visualize the number ‘42’, I see just that in my head, the numbers ‘4’ and ‘2’ side-by-side. Am I strange because of this or is this similar to everyone else? Regardless, if I visualize the word for that small red fruit, I see the word ‘strawberry’ which is completely different from ‘frutilla,’ yet it is supposed to represent the same idea. So, with words, there is bit of a disconnect between the idea, but with numbers the associated idea is still the same. That’s why I am not surprised that I started to think of numbers in Spanish very easily. When purchasing something and the cashier tells me how much I owe I do not have to translate, “‘Doscientos treinta’ to mean ‘two-hundred thirty.’” Rather, I just think, “230,” which is the same in both languages. And I’ve known my numbers since high school (kidding, that’s a joke – I learned numbers way before that, like 6th grade at least!). Obviously, this examination of what is happening in my brain is extremely scientific, totally accurate, and backed by no other opinions, so don’t try to argue with me.

Part of my revelation came from a guy named Paco. I’ve known Paco since my second day here and it was easy to make friends with him. He is actually kind of old, he’s got gray and black hair, he doesn’t move with much pep and spends quite a bit of every day just sleeping out in the middle of the yard. Oh, shit, yeah, I forgot to mention, Paco is a dog. I knew, before coming down here, that living with a host family would be beneficial to learning the language. The constant exposure to the language and culture is invaluable, but what I didn’t realize was that their dog was going to be teaching me Spanish as well.

Generally, Paco is an outside dog. My host parents leave the doors to the house open a lot when they are home, so Paco kind of roams in and out as he pleases. Almost every night and any time they leave the house they kick Paco out. I give this background because my host parents spent a weekend over in Chile. When they left, one of their daughters would come over to the house to take care of Paco, but I was still the only one home most of the time.

When it came time for me to sleep the first night, I had to kick Paco out myself. I had never done this until now, but naturally I said what we all say to dogs, things like, “Let’s go, Paco,” or “C’mon, Paco,” or “Paco, let’s go outside,” and then the more stern, “Paco, outside! Let’s go!” Paco laid there on the floor, just looking at me with expressionless dog eyes. I thought that maybe it’s just because he’s old (13 years) and didn’t want to get up, then I had a huge revelation. On the inside, Paco was laughing his ass off at me! He was thinking, “This fricken’ gringo is speakin’ English to me! I don’t understand a lick of English!”

At the time, I was still struggling to communicate the basics. So, I was completely used to people not understanding what I was saying, but when I realized that even a dog can’t understand me, well that just made me feel like an idiot.

It was comical, then, when I switched to Spanish, remembering what my host parents would always say, “Paco, vamos! Afuera!” (let’s go/outside) and he immediately stood up and walked out the door. Incredible, language is.

Didn’t mind the four-hour drive through this scenery at all.

What exactly did Paco teach me? Well, nothing that I didn’t already know, but he reminded me of something: Words are purely sounds that carry a specific meaning. Just like a name. The only reason my name is Matthew is because I have been called that my entire life (the letters at the courthouse are just that, letters, and those can be changed). Actually, Matthew is not my name, Matt is my name, because that’s what most people call me. Actually, Matt isn’t my name, I have many others that I respond to just as I respond to my ‘official’ name. In fact, growing up, I was confused so many times with my brother that I won’t even skip a beat if you call me ‘Nathan’.

Paco only hears sounds and knows the ideas or actions associated with them. The English words have the same meaning, but different sounds from the Spanish words. What this means to me is that instead of learning the words and their translations, I need to learn the sounds and the ideas associated with them. It is kind of the same thing. Right?

This was the first big click, and numbers actually came to me only a few weeks after being down here. More recently, the words that people speak or I read. We were at a bar watching a fútbol game and there were captions running across the bottom of the screen. I don’t know the exact numbers, but what I do assume as fact is that humans can speak and hear words much quicker than we can read them. On top of that, I’m not the world’s best reader. Actually, I straight up suck (not joking like I was with my math skills, I totally went to summer school as a kid just for reading…). So, reading captions of speech running across the bottom of a screen is hard in English, let alone Spanish. Yet, that night in the bar, for the most part, I actually understood the captions. Again, I noticed myself not translating the words that I saw back to English in order to understand them. I simply knew the idea associated with the words and from that I understood what I was reading.

Las Cataratas del Iguazú

It’s a strange feeling, because I will find myself responding to people’s questions without thinking. Then a few moments later translating it and consciously thinking about what I said, but completely after the fact. It’s almost like an out-of-body experience, where this other Matt is speaking Spanish and I am a few feet away, detached from the conversation.

So, progress is being, but I am nowhere close to be considered fluent. If someone talking directly to me, I am paying, and it is about something general without a lot specific terminology, can understand about 80% of what say. 80% seems like a number but then realize that is basic communication, like the type of talking you do with a six kid.

If you are wondering what the hell that last paragraph was, welcome to my understanding of the Spanish language. I took out 20% of the words from that paragraph at random, so let’s give it another try with all of them:

So, progress is being made, but I am nowhere even close to being what would be considered fluent. If someone is talking directly to me, I am paying attention, and it is about something general without a lot of specific terminology, I can typically understand about 80% of what they say. 80% seems like a high number but then realize that is just basic communication, like the type of talking you would do with a six-year-old kid.

Throw me into an intelligent conversation and I will immediately contribute nothing. I’ll probably get the gist of the idea and if it’s a joke or something funny there’s a chance I’ll laugh without needing a translation, but don’t expect me to be actively involved in that discussion.

I recall recently trying to recount the story of getting my wisdom teeth pulled. I was trying to talk about how my body has this reaction where when I get stuck with needles I pretty much go into shock and almost pass out every time. So, when they put the IV port into my arm (just the port, nothing was flowing yet) my heart rate immediately got halved down to 30 bpm. It stayed like that for 10 minutes. I was also a lucky recipient of a dry socket.

Valle Grande near San Rafael. It was grande.

I tried telling this story but quickly realized that I knew very, very little Spanish in the medical or dental realm. I’m not saying that I’m a medical professional in English, but I just told you the story in the paragraph above, right? So, that’s my point. It’s safe to say that long story very quickly became a short one…

Along with that story, speaking the language is an altogether different beast to tame. It is still very difficult for me to produce the language on the spot. I can give you a broken sentence with verbs and nouns, but the verbs will not be conjugated properly, the adjectives won’t agree with the noun genders (words have gender in Spanish), and any kind of pronoun will likely not gain entry to my sentence.

I said above that I am slowly getting to the point where I can understand conversation without the need to translate it to English. This is another interesting corner of my mind I wish I knew more about. One of my classes here is a language course, and one of the activities we often do in class is listen to prerecorded audio clips. Our instructor will then ask what we heard. On the surface it seems simple, almost to the point of pointlessness (the point of pointlessness? Does that make sense?) But think of the last conversation you had today. Do you recall exactly what was said? Or do you just remember the general idea of what was talked about? Since it is difficult to understand every word I hear in Spanish, and then remember every word, you can be sure that even after just having listened to the conversation, I have trouble recalling the words that were spoken. Because of this, when she subsequently asks what they said, I struggle to say anything. I can’t remember the words they spoke, only the ideas, and I have trouble coming up with my own words to describe the ideas that I remember.

Essentially, Spanish is a one-way road right now where people can talk to me (kind of) but I am mute back to them. I think this is interesting because I would have expected the opposite, where I would have a more difficult time understanding others than producing the language myself, since I can at least think about what I am going to say.

The happy news: I have mastered at least a few words! Words that I describe as ‘gut reaction’ words, like “thank you,” “excuse me,” or “you’re welcome;” words that we say just because the situation calls for them, but we don’t think about them at all. I can confidently call myself a master of these gut reaction words because of my experience of going back to the States.

Seeing an outlet like this in the Texas airport was cooler than it should have been.

During my study abroad experience I did what probably 1% of students do, I went back home. I did this, though, for the best reason ever, my brother’s wedding (CONGRATS!!), but I was only back for a total of three days. While two months wasn’t enough to learn a lot of Spanish, it was enough to cement those gut reaction words into my brain. I first realized it when talking to the flight attendants on my flight from Buenos Aires to Texas. I would default to Spanish and not realize it till after the fact. Then, in the Houston airport, going through customs, the agent told me “Welcome back home,” to which I responded “Gracias!” He either gets that a lot or it was a half-assed “welcome back home” because he didn’t react at all to the different-languaged response.

Over the course of the next three days I continued to use “de nada,” “permiso,” “perdon,” and other gut-words. And, on top of that, I would see events of life play out but think about them in Spanish, such as someone accidentally bumping into someone else and apologizing. To me, as I witnessed it I expected the person to speak words in Spanish, but I heard English instead (rightfully so).

Despite returning to the States and being able to have an amazing time with my family (new family) and friends, I was actually uncomfortable for those three days. I have become so comfortable with not understanding the language down here that being able to understand all the world around me weirded me out. TV and radio commercials, random people passing by, signs of any type… it was very strange. I didn’t realize it until I was in the Santiago airport on my way back, where everything was Spanish again. It actually felt normal again, almost as if thinking, “ahhhhh, this is how the world is supposed to sound.”

A mountain pass that went up to 13,700ft.

One last thing about coming back to the States: I love driving. I missed driving while I was here because of the ability to go to distant places not accessible by bus, but I didn’t realize how much freedom I was missing. When I started the car for the first time I immediately smiled, and I couldn’t help myself from running out the RPMs a little more than normal before shifting (as if I don’t drive a bucket of rust that might explode at any moment in time, it’s still fun to pretend…). No, of course I didn’t speed – that’s irresponsible and dangerous. Anyways, driving grants me a certain power and freedom that I don’t have with my own two feet. I’ve definitely come to realize how much of a luxury it is to simply have access to a vehicle. Down here, it’s not like I just don’t have a personal vehicle to use any time I want, I don’t even have access to a parent’s or friend’s vehicle if needed. If I wanted a ride from someone, well, that would consist of them meeting me on a sidewalk and walking with me to wherever I was going. Thanks!

Side note: even if I could drive down here, I’m not sure I would want to. Despite being a self-proclaimed amazing driver, I don’t think I could consistently squeeze a car through a gap only a few inches wider than the car itself. And I’m not just talking about parking lots and parallel parking. I’m talking about putting the ball through the super thin uprights going 40mph, weaving around others like it’s the Olympic Super G, or dodging all the people playing real-life Frogger.

Salt flats of Argentina. Yes, the ground tasted very salty.

Other stuff I want to make note of before I forget about it forever: Watching movies and TV in a language you don’t understand makes you appreciate cinematography and other aspects, besides the dialogue, a whole lot more. One night at dinner they threw on the TV and a movie was playing. We agreed that we had all seen it before, but nobody could remember the name of the movie. Everyone was looking at me because it was clearly a movie that had originally been produced in English but was subsequently stripped of the language and voiced over in Spanish. For the life of me I couldn’t remember the name of the movie, but I swore up and down that I recognized the actors and scenes I was watching. It was one of those times where you go crazy and vow not to sleep till you remember it.

Meanwhile, since I didn’t understand the dialogue, I was free to pay attention to the details of the movie, how the picture was being framed, what was being shown, and largely, the sounds of the movie, including the music. It was actually very intriguing to me to analyze all these different parts, and to see how much of the movie I understood only from these aspects.

Nicholas Spark’s The Notebook. That’s what I eventually remembered, and yes, I got really happy and everyone in the room laughed when I excitedly announced that I finally recalled the name. I’ve never been a fan of extremely predictable movies, but this time around I really enjoyed it. In order to understand what was happening I was nitpicking every bit I could to draw out as much meaning as possible. This makes me almost wish the movies would leave out more of the corny and predictable dialogue in the first place. I suppose my problem with it is that they are just feeding the audience the exact information they want to give, rather than let the creation of the movie show through. It might as well be a book with how speech-driven the movies is… oh, wait. Anyways, only after watching this sappy love story in a different language did I start to enjoy it.

Heaven is cooking on the parilla

Something else that I have come to appreciate more from living down here (or maybe just living outside of the U.S.) are relationships between people. I am going to keep this short because I plan to elaborate more in a future post, but, essentially, I have come to realize that this culture forces you to love people more than things. Everything that is done down here is focused on other people, not so much strangers, but friends and family. One of the most culturally distinctive things is the asado. I’ve explained the asado before, but it is basically the Argentine version of a grill-out. There are many aspects to it, but a detail that I believe paints a great picture is how the meat is served. The meat is pulled off the parilla (a sort of oven/grill thing) as soon as it is cooked, meaning that only small amounts are ready at a time. The meat is put onto a plate and passed around the table for everyone to take a little. As more meat becomes ready, it gets passed around again, and again, and again until meat remains on the plate and everyone is pregnant with a massive food baby. This tiny detail doesn’t seem significant, but the sheer fact that you are passing around the same plate and sharing over and over again instantly makes you (at least me) feel closer to the other people sitting at that table. There have been many occasions where I’ve felt so content in the moment, among amazing people and food alike, where I feel like I could just sit there for eternity and never tire of it.

Regardless of that, time is flying. When I first got here I thought time was going by fast, and that was when I still had more than four months ahead of me. Now, I have about two weeks till my classes end, and only another month after that until I return to the U.S. (for more than three days this time). While returning home is an exciting thought, to see the people I love and actually relax a little, right now I am living in the moment, because I only have a month and a half of moments left to experience things I would never see or do in the States. I only have a few moments left to meet strangers who quickly become friends, as well as spending time with those who I have become friends with already. The next handful of weeks are going to be some of the quickest, busiest, happiest, beautiful, but also saddest weeks of my life so far, and probably of my life forever.

Everyone who talks to me from the U.S. always asks if I am enjoying my time down here. Based off what I just wrote here, I’ll say that, yes, just the slightest amount 😊

¡Besos! 😘








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