We’ve been on the road in South America for about six months now and — although I’m not yet able to read a local paper without a dictionary — I have finally become a confident speaker. I can handle being put on the spot and, most importantly, I’m better at staying relaxed when I talk to strangers. As a result, I can listen to people more intently (rather than getting caught up in forming my own sentences correctly).
The South Americans we’ve met on our journey are inquisitive, open, friendly and love to talk. So much so, in fact, that they often don’t seem to care whether I understand them or not. Sometimes it seems they just enjoy holding an audience and get carried away with their extended monologues. This is great for me because I’m challenged to really listen to what they are saying and to concentrate on picking up as much as I can. It’s one thing to learn your vocabulary and practice on your own, but you need to hear how native speakers use the words to say things the right way yourself. This doesn’t just go for pronunciation but intonation as well — every language has its own melody.
Of course, it can be hard to understand someone who is speaking rapidly in a language you’re still learning. But I find that, even if I only manage to understand every fifth word, I can usually get the gist of what they are telling me and can respond accordingly. In order to stay in the moment, I often have to sacrifice things like proper conjugation or correct tense. When I practice Spanish by myself I can get these things right, but in a conversation I am not always quick enough — yet!
I now realize that it is more important to react intuitively than to spend too much time thinking. My mistakes aren’t really a hinderance; people seem able to fill the gaps from the context of the conversation. I guess for them it’s also more about getting the gist! People here don’t seem to care how fluent my Spanish is. They’re listening to what I have to say, not how I say it.
In our experience, the people of the Andes are genuine and non-judgmental. We cycle into these little towns, dirty from the road, coming from a completely different culture and speaking our own version of Spanish. One might expect a bit of a culture clash, but it’s not like that at all. Their relaxed manner has rubbed off on us, and this makes communicating easier and more fun.