I value communication–probably a prerequisite for being a writer, but also a reason for studying other languages. For example, Spanish is one of the three most widely spoken languages in the world, and the first language of many people living in the United States. So, one of my primary goals for my five-week stay in Lima was to return truly fluent in Spanish.
Part way through the trip, I realized that wasn’t going to happen.
The tour was an amazing combination of learning in classes at the Universidad de Pacifico, getting to know my Peruvian family, learning how to navigate Lima solo, and weekend tours. We visited the dunes at Ica and the birds at Paracas, climbed Waimu Picchu to view Machu Picchu from above, explored Cuzco, flew into Iquitos, and stayed in a jungle lodge on a tributary of the Amazon where we fished for piranha. It was a fantastic experience. However, whenever we got together with the other ISA summer students, we slipped into English. We weren’t supposed to, but with only five weeks, it happens. Also, whenever there was someone who was more fluent in Spanish around, it was easy to let them take the lead and translate.
The other obstacle was that English is the global economy’s language. Most people I have encountered in other countries, including Peru, speak some English. They usually want to practice–and they’re not all highly educated. Many people in rural areas have only a few years of schooling, but Quechua kids selling art in the plazas of Cuzco, craftsmen, and our guides in the Amazon all spoke a native language first, Spanish because they learn it in elementary school, and enough English to converse and carry on their business. How many high school dropouts in the U.S. can speak multiple languages? How many college grads? Even though I studied three languages, without the environment requiring and facilitating regular practice, they’ve all become quite weak.
While my Spanish grammar and vocabulary improved dramatically while I was in Peru, I still could not claim to be fluent for a job that requires consistently proper grammar and a broad vocabulary. That would take a least a year of living in the country with minimal use of English.
The good news? When I was on my own, I had extensive conversations with trades people, the ISA driver, my hostess (who wants to learn English but will not use it with students who are there to improve their Spanish), and other people. While we sometimes had to pull in Spanglish or their English, for the most part we used Spanish. I even handled talking to the dentist on my own!
So, while I can’t label myself as bilingual, I know I’ll be adequate when the need for Spanish arises–if I don’t forget!