One of my biggest challenges since arriving in Bolivia is the language. I know how to explore a new city to find the best restaurants and restaurants. I have experience with noisy traffic and stray dogs. I can handle the cold temperatures and random storms. But the language is not something that requires just “being flexible” and “going with the flow”. It requires actually learning something – a lot of somethings in fact!
I can honestly say that communication has been one of the biggest things to overcome during my experiences in international development. Even if you’re speaking the same language, there are major cultural differences between countries, and major communication style differences between people. When talking to colleagues and managers, there’s always a compromise to be made between speaking clearly to get your ideas across and seeming too rude and forward. In Bolivia, I find that the opposite is the case. You have to be a little bit pushy to get anything done. If you wait for your boss to set up a meeting it will never happen, and if there’s something you need – you have to ask. If you wait around, you probably won’t get that much work done while you’re here.
Picking up a new idioma is more than just nodding and understanding. There are millions of words, hundreds of verbs, and at least 10 different verb tenses – yikes! I’m enjoying my work, but it’s really hard to have meetings and get my point across when I can only use small, simple words to explain complex ideas. Thankfully, I’ve been taking classes and have been able to learn a bit of vocabulary, a few words at a time.
I’ve never been one of those people who can pick up a language easily. Everyone has a friend that knows at least a few words from every place they’ve ever visited. It’s impressive – and intimidating! I’ve lived, worked, traveled, and researched in many countries before: Uganda, Australia, Nepal, Ghana, Bangladesh… But the working language has always been English. I may have struggled to haggle with women selling fruit in the market, or tell the taxi driver where I’m going – but I was always okay in the office, doing my work in English.
Now I live in Bolivia, so everything has changed. I won’t just be here for a just few weeks (able to just stumble my way through and get by with charades), I’ll be here for an entire year! Although my director speaks English, every other person at my office is entirely Spanish. They can say “Hello, how are you?” in English, but that’s about it. In fact, the job I applied for required almost fluent Spanish. Thankfully (for me), my field is very specific (Industrial Design), and my organization struggled to find someone with the appropriate skills. Not only did they have to find a designer, it had to be someone who wanted to work in the non-profit world, who was willing to relocate to another continent, learn a different language, and work for a small stipend – not an easy find! In the end, they figured it would be easier to teach someone Spanish than design, so I was hired!
To read the rest of my new blog, check it out here on Expat Coffee Club – Struggling to Learn a New Language