February 14, 2012

Soy un Evangelico!  Translation: I´m an Evangelical. I bet you never thought you´d hear me say that?!!

One of the benefits of studying at the Maryknoll Center here in Cochabamba is that that they host guest lecturers on a variety of different topics. Last week we had the opportunity to learn about the history of Christian mission in Latin America from a Jesuit history professor who teaches in Lima, Peru. The early part of the series was, understandably, focused on Catholic missions and the Catholic Church. Toward the late 1880s, though, we began to talk more about Protestant missionaries and the emergence of Protestant tradition in Latin America.

It was in these history lectures that I was reminded that language always needs to be appreciated and understood in its cultural context. For example, many of us have had the experience of speaking English in another country where English is the primary language only to discover that we mean very different things yet are using the same words. Our lecturer, Jeff, reminded us that Evangelico in Spanish does not mean “Evangelical” as we use it the U.S. In fact, all Protestants are “Evangelicos.” Not being aware of such nuances in language can make for strange conversations. I could easily see myself engaged  in a conversation with someone to whom I´ve just explained that I´m not Catholic, only to have that person announce their new knowledge by declaring that they understand that I´m an “Evangelico.” My natural response would be to say, “No!” And then that person would likely respond, “but you just said you weren´t Catholic.” 

This type of confusion is why it´s best to maintain a sense of humor. I can´t begin to tell you how many conversations I´ve had in the past few weeks that were clearly miscommunications. Sometimes the conversation is based around different understandings of a word, as I indicated above. Other times it is due to my misinterpretation of a particular word, which often results in my counterpart giving me strange looks until one of us figures out that I meant something different. In class today I tried to explain that I was embarrassed … only to become exceedingly embarrassed to learn that the word I was using meant pregnant; my teacher assured me it was highly unlikely that I was pregnant. One of my favorite examples of miscommunication was when a woman in Ecuador asked me if I was married. I thought she asked if I was tired, because in Spanish the words for tired and married are quite similar. I don´t think I will ever forget the expression on her face when I responded, “a little.”

It´s one thing to make silly mistakes in class, where they´re expected. It´s yet another to do so in the grocery store, during dinner with your host family, and on the street trying to be friendly with a neighbor. Thankfully, I happen to be one of those people who appreciates that all of life is a classroom. That´s certainly the case living in another culture. Everything I do … every place I go … every person I speak with … is a learning experience about another language … culture … way of life.

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