My housemate Izzy and I popped downstairs for breakfast at 7:15am last Friday. Cecelia, our mama tica, or Costa Rican host mom, had laid out two pancakes for each of us, peanut butter, jelly, and maple-flavored syrup as toppings, and pineapple chunks on the side. She always puts each breakfast item on a separate little plate – even our coffee mugs get small china saucers.
“These pancakes are strawberry,” she told us, in Spanish. “I got two boxes of mix; one is strawberry, and one is banana because I know you girls like banana.”
“How sweet!” we responded.
To further prove her point, she brought the pancake boxes from the kitchen, proudly showing us her selections. I immediately realized both boxes were in English and both had a large photograph of a stack of pancakes on the front. On one box, they were garnished with strawberry slices. On the other, banana rounds. Both boxes read, “Original”.
“There were some other mixes, but I didn’t know what kind they were because they didn’t have the drawing on the box, y eran en inglés,” she told I smiled big at her, and on the inside, I crossed my fingers that no one would ever tell her the pancakes she had bought were all just regular pancake flavor with pictures of fruit. She is such a sweet, well-meaning lady, who, just like me, struggles to understand when things are not in her native language.
In the three weeks I’ve been studying here, there have been countless signs, labels, comments, and conversations that I misunderstood due to my lack of Spanish fluency.
Last Thursday, I went out with my friends and one of them tried to order a tequila soda. The bartender was confused and asked if she wanted a tequila with Coke. After a few more attempts to explain, my friend gave up and ordered a margarita (which turned out to be bright blue).
Once I accidentally ordered what was essentially a frappuccino when what I wanted was an iced coffee. Apparently at my favorite sandwich place, that’s as close as you can get.
Even my and my housemate’s nightly dinner conversations with our mama tica involve countless lapses in understanding between us. Izzy and I have a little debrief session on the way back upstairs after eating. Basically, we compare notes on words we didn’t understand or whether we both followed one of Cecelia’s long stories (she likes to go on tangents about the state of the world and how her sons and daughters are doing). I think collectively we normally process about 80% of what’s happenin
As becoming more fluent in Spanish is arguably my biggest priority while I’m here in San José, I put a lot of pressure on myself to understand and to be understood. Our plain/strawberry/banana pancake breakfast was a reminder that learning any language is not a fluid process. There will never be a full jump from “intermediate” to “fluent” or some point I reach where there are no more mistakes and no more to learn. Communicating outside your native language is messy, and if I’ve realized anything from the ticos I’ve spoken to so far, most are more than willing to patiently work with you to reach mutual points of understanding.