The supposition that thinking in a foreign language indicates fluency is false. Babies think, too, but they ain’t fluent in any language.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve realized that it’s possible to return to a child-like state through foreign language immersion. I’ve been here almost three weeks, and I would estimate that I’ve spent about two of them in mental babyhood. Especially in my first week, when I was around only Spanish for long enough, my thoughts would forget English - but they would forget, too, all of the complicated rational and emotional structures I’ve learned since I was three years old. I got back to basics. I’m almost certain that there were hours where the only conscious thoughts I had were ones I laid out for myself in beginner Spanish - I’m hungry, I’m tired, I need to buy a bus ticket.
An empty mind is meditative but it is also kind of disorienting, to be stripped of your thinking voice. And it is also frustrating to feel this same simplicity in your speech, especially when you come to a place to talk with people. Having to think carefully about constructing your sentences makes you draw more on pure emotion. It increases your sense of wonder (that you’ve expressed anything at all) - and it increases your sensitivity to the people around you. I think, in this way, that trying to speak in a new language can return you to an elemental fear that you’re not enough. In Salto, with Pilar, I caught myself forgetting to breathe, like I was holding all of my ideas and thoughts and questions in my lungs because I didn’t want to ask them wrong.
You want people to hear you but you want them to hear YOU, not the baby version of you. Any time I asked Pilar a question and she looked at me with a curious head tilt, it made me want to shut up. To yell like her three-year-old daughter Milly - NO! - and run away.
But one thing that Milly taught me is that children are stubborn. Baby says WAHH and baby gets what she wants. And, with a few tools from the twenty-four year old toolbox, she might be able to express herself with more nuance. If she is patient - with herself and with the people listening to her, a combination of sensitivity and force - she can make herself heard.
2. Childhood? Adolescence? Adulthood?
I just spent two days in Resistencia, Argentina, at a conference on holistic land management hosted by the ranching organization that I’m reporting on. A new convert to the technique hosted twenty people at his family’s estancia. He and his father-in-law picked me up at the bus station in a car full of coolers and pillows. It felt like we were driving out to the country for a raucous long-weekend house party. An hour or so after we arrived at the estancia - after Luciano’s ranch hands had made up the cots in the living room (and my bed in my own personal room with A/C), after the evening rain had started, after wine had been poured - it became clear that I was going to be the only journalist, the only non-native Spanish speaker, and the only woman. I took five minutes in my room to draw myself up and do my best to channel Martha Gellhorn, elegant and hard-hitting with the journo boys at the Hotel Florida during the Spanish Civil War.
That first night at dinner, I listened a lot. The next day, I made myself ask questions and I made myself edit those questions if no one understood and I made myself use all the new vocabulary that flew around the living room-turned-classroom: ganadero pastizal pasto potrero cria recria manejo holistico (broadly, I spent 48 hours learning and talking about grass length and pregnant cows). The next day, today, I defended myself at breakfast from the good-natured teasing of five Paraguyan guys (apparently, I turned off all the electricity in the ranch the first night when I unplugged my AC), teasing them right back. Just now, one of the Argentine veterinarians drove me to the bus station and we talked the whole way in about the challenges Argentina faces in developing sustainably, about travel, about what work is. Me explico? I asked. Si Si si, re bien, he said.
He came with me to buy my ticket and made sure the bus was taking the route that would avoid flooding in Santa Fe province. He helped me strap on my backpack. Then he drove away in his pickup truck and I set off to the bus platform and as the sun was setting I climbed the bus. My seat is in the front row on the second level, and the road is stretching out ahead.
P.s. A story for you about babyhood:
At lunch the first day at Panagea, Juan Manuel asked me, “Charlotte, are your parents worried about you traveling alone in South America?” “Nah, not really, I said.” We went back to our pasta. “And Liz, how is she?” he asked. My mom later forwarded me their email correspondence in which she asked him with worry if I had arrived and he responded asking her if I was old enough to drink beer].