Spanish is hard to learn. Really. Harder to learn than it seems when it first seems hard to learn. A complete language has a whole lot of words, different grammar rules, and different colloquialisms. In Spanish class in the United States it seemed pretty simple. It was a relatively easy class, where you just came in and talked to your classmates. There was nothing really riding on the experience. There was no one there to stare at you in bewilderment as you attempted coherence, because everyone was struggling just the same. But the classroom of life is much different. It made us realize viscerally that we were actually infants in this language, and the prospect of becoming semi-fluent seemed unimaginable. Yet, at the same time, this awareness of our limitations also came with the awareness of how much quicker we were learning in El Salvador than we did in our courses in the United States.
After our week in El Rodeo (see these three posts) we knew we had to learn more Spanish in order to make the most out of our time here. Helpfully, two members of our delegation from the Washington Ethical Society recommended a language school in El Salvador, CIS, which stands for Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (Center for Exchange and Solidarity). It was in San Salvador. They did intensive classes with 5 people or fewer at a time, based in the popular education model. They had a program to connect us with a host family and a place to stay. And we heard they were really nice people. We were sold!
CIS has an interesting, at times fun and at times heartbreaking program; designed by leftists in a country that recently experienced a neo-colonial civil war. In classes we spoke about parts of the body, occupations, what we did yesterday, things we would like to do in the future, as well as the murder of Trayvon Martin, genocide against the Indigenous people of El Salvador, and assassinated martyrs who worked for the people. CIS also has a political and cultural program which took students to various locations in and around San Salvador, including the nearby volcano, archeological site, museums, NGOs, as well as the locations of massacres and assassinations.
In terms of our host family and living situation, that was a bit of kismet. CIS connected us with Melba Jimenez, a mother of three grown kids with a nice home near the National University. She worked as a nurse during the war and now gives workshops on Nonviolent Communication and Focusing to help people mentally heal from the present and past violence in El Salvador. This was a good match, what with our interests in social justice and conflict transformation, and our experience with nonviolent communication.
One of the first things Melba said to us, while we were meeting in the entryway at CIS, was how for a long time, she didn’t want to learn English because people in the United States were sending money and weapons to kill the Salvadoran people. This delighted us immediately, although there was no easy way for us to communicate this to her with our yet to be expanded Spanish. It was like a quick code to reveal that we came from similar values. The sentence was honest, assertive, revelatory of critical thinking, and oriented towards ethical views. We knew we had found a good match.
So we settled in with Melba and eventually got to meet all of her kids, Susana, Yara, and Nicolas. Another person from the US, Rachel, was also staying with Melba while she volunteered with CIS over the summer. We’ve had a lot of good conversations with people in this house. Bit by bit our fluency grows. The rapid speech becomes more comprehensible and at times actually seems to slow (at least to Andrew). Yet the destination we wanted… simply to reliably be able to speak clearly and to understand the speech of people we would come in contact with… this still seems very far to reach. We’ll talk more about our various activities in the next post.