Reflections on Communication

Communicating efficiently with other people is one of the hardest things to learn how to do. Language has so many nuances that are hard to interpret and convey. A simple conversation can be hard to have if two people come from different backgrounds or have different interpretations of life. Communicating can be difficult even when both parties are speaking the same language.

Communicating in a non-native language can be hard, full of misunderstandings, and fairly stressful. During our time in Uruguay, we knew that communication was hard, but we were learning, and it definitely got easier the more comfortable we became with the language. It wasn’t until we got home that we realized how stressed out we had become about communicating with people.

For months we had prepared for every conversation we needed to have with anyone. We prepared for new vocabulary. We prepared for “what ifs”. We prepared to sound as natural as possible. We did this for everyone, from the check-out lady at the grocery store to our land lady to people in retail stores. We combed the internet for phrases that might make sense in the situation we would be in. We reviewed what we would say, how we could explain things, how to ask questions. And we did this constantly.

When we got back to the states, Asa and I both found ourselves still mentally reviewing possible conversations with people in Spanish. One morning, Asa even decided not to get a haircut because it would be too difficult to explain the type of cut he wanted in Spanish… only realizing later that he wouldn’t be speaking Spanish with the lady at the barber shop. Doh! I even spoke to a waitress at the Miami airport in Spanish because I heard Spanish around me.

Once we finally convinced ourselves that speaking to people in English was easy, it was a pleasure to talk to people. More of a pleasure than we had ever realized it could be. Being able to communicate to someone exactly what we wanted, and do it easily was so gratifying. It was fun being able to talk to people. It was nice to not be stressed out about communicating with people. We no longer had to prepare for conversations, we could make last minute decisions.

Our time in Uruguay has made both of us appreciate communication in a whole new light. We commonly take communication for granted, forgetting that at some point when we were young we actually had to learn to communicate with others. The ability to communicate should not be taken for granted. It is our window to the world and without it, I imagine, we would be very lonely.

So the next time you’re at a restaurant or the check-out counter think about your ability to communicate, and do it with ease!

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What did they just say?: Language Lessons

One of the hardest things about learning a new language is figuring out how to understand other people. Sure you may know the vocabulary and know how to conjugate verbs, but what do you do when someone asks you a question?

Inevitably they will speak very quickly, have an accent, and be mumbling all at the same time. What do you do? Do you:

A) Panic

B) Nod like you know what they are talking about

C) Say “sí” which is the only word that you can remember in the heat of the moment

D) Calmly and quickly answer their question

When we first arrived in Montevideo answers A, B, and C all described our efforts at communication. In preparation for all of our outings we would review the adventure-specific vocabulary we were likely to hear, but inevitably something would come up that we didn’t know.

The following are a few of our language experiences…

– The first week we were in Montevideo the lady at the check-out counter in the grocery store would say something when we arrived in front of her. Our confused faces and “No se, lo siento” (I don’t know, I’m sorry) would quiet her. We eventually deciphered her words as “tarjeta más?” and we eventually figured out that she was referring to their rewards card. We had never seen anyone using one of these cards which made it especially difficult to figure out.

– There is an ATM at the market that is enclosed in a little room. There is a card swipe on the wall that lets people in. I tried it on the way into the market one day and the door failed to open. So when I got to the check-out counter I tried to ask the lady if the ATM required a card to get into, but of course I momentarily forgot the word for “door” and, based on the incredulous look on her face, most probably ended up asking her if I needed a card to get money out of the ATM. Doh!

– When we stayed at a hotel in Buenos Aires, we were able to check-in completely in Spanish. On check-out, we were ready to do the same, but got derailed when the man asked us if we had consumed anything from the mini-bar. Neither Asa or I had ever heard the word for minibar (“frigobar” which really isn’t all that different) and got really confused. The bilingual man quickly realized we had no idea what he said and continued the entire check-out process in English.

– Our first week in Montevideo took us to the local panaderia (bakery). We went in with the desire for bread. We told them that we were learning spanish and that we wanted one of those, and pointed to what we wanted. Then we asked them what the word for it was… “baguette”. Go figure!

– When we first arrived in Montevideo we started frequenting a local chivitos restaurant. What made this place problematic for us is that they don’t have a menu. The first time we went there, we were accompanied by some spanish speaking friends who ordered for us. The second time we went on our own was fairly comical. We ordered chivitos how we wanted them (we remembered that part) and then we ordered “dos papas fritas”. The waitress looked at us like we each had three heads. Then she smiled and asked, “dos porciones de papas fritas?”.

– Tiqui Taca is the local chivitos place near our new Pocitos apartment. They have a special: buy three chivitos and get one order of french fries for free. So we went in and ordered our sandwiches and two portions of french fries. Obviously the man knew we were not from around here and said, “uno es un regalo… 1 FREE!”, practically yelling the english part. Hilarious!

– When Asa and I had to get yellow fever shots I had a fairly humorous and frustrating phone call that ended in the necessity of speaking to someone in english. Check out a recounting of that adventure here.

There have been many more awkward and embarrassing language moments, but for the most part people are very nice. Telling people that you are learning a new language is usually really helpful. Most people, upon learning that, will speak more slowly and try and help with words you may be trying (but failing) to say. They are usually interested in where you are from and how you like Montevideo.

If you really get into a bind, there is usually someone around that speaks English. All the schools in Montevideo now teach English as part of the curriculum. So when in doubt, seek out a young person. Most of the older generation doesn’t know any english.

Just like in many countries, locals seem to appreciate us trying to speak in their native language no matter how much we botch it!

Learning a Language

There are a variety of ways to learn a language which include taking classes, using websites, using learning software, or getting a pen pal to practice writing or speaking with. Despite these options, they say that the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it by spending some time in a place that only speaks that language. This would force you to learn the language or perish.

Asa, Matt and I all took Spanish classes during high school which taught us some basic vocabulary and how to conjugate verbs. As these experiences were about 10 years ago, we quickly found that we had forgotten a substantial amount of what we learned. Really learning a language requires constant exposure to it.

When we decided to move to Uruguay, the first thing I did was start working on learning Spanish again. The first place I turned was the internet. There are several free “learn Spanish” websites of varying degrees of helpfulness. My favorite is: http://www.spanishdict.com/learn. It has a variety of really cool learning tools including: flashcards, matching, spelling, and speaking exercises, and videos describing language concepts and vocabulary. The website also tracks your progress through four different levels and you always have access to their dictionary and phrasebooks. I really enjoy the website, but it’s a bit difficult to watch the videos and do the exercises when the internet connection is slow.

A very new website (set to go public June 19) designed to help people learn languages is http://duolingo.com. It is designed by the same group that created the reCAPTCHA system that helps digitize old books by having consumers decipher text that computers cannot. Duolingo is an internet program that helps people learn languages (just Spanish and German currently) through exercises and translations. The text available for translation is actually real snippets of text taken from the internet. One goal of the inventors is to make the internet more accessible to the world-wide population via translation into a variety of languages. Studies have shown that their design is equally effective in teaching language as other well-tested software products (like Rosetta Stone). Another highlight of Duolingo is that they have gamified their product, allowing people to gain points and compete against their friends while they learn. Here is a TED talk describing the creation and purpose of Duolingo and reCAPTCHAs. I really like Duolingo. It is fun and I feel like I am doing something good while I am learning!

The second place I turned was more traditional language learning software, specifically, Rosetta Stone. My mother had purchased level 1 Spanish years ago which I promptly borrowed. Rosetta stone uses a visual recognition system to help people learn languages. For example it will show you a picture of an apple and tell you what the word for apple is in Spanish. The program then builds on your knowledge of the word for apple to teach other words. For example it will show a photo of 5 apples and 3 oranges. In this way a person can also learn the number 5 because they already know the word for apple. The program uses a variety of exercises including matching photos to written words, matching spoken words to photos, practicing pronunciation, practicing spelling, and requiring participants to verbally describe photos. Rosetta does a great job with its voice processing software. I really like using Rosetta stone for its work on verbal skills which are often ignored in other beginner classes. It also does a good job with reinforcing concepts and vocabulary by requiring review and learning concepts through a variety of the exercises.

The biggest downside to using Rosetta Stone is the cost. The company does not allow consumers to purchase individual levels besides level 1 (there are 5 levels available). Rosetta Stone offers packages that include the first three levels or all five levels. The cost for all 5 levels is normally $500 US (P.S. they are having a Father’s Day special right now and all 5 levels only cost $400 US). The first level by itself costs an insane $179 US. Sometimes these packages are a little cheaper from Amazon, but not all the time.

There are other language learning software programs that are much cheaper and claim to have the same results as Rosetta Stone. One such program is called Instant Immersion and I haven’t tried it. The only reason I know about it is that they sell it at Costco and online in a yellow box deceptively similar to Rosetta Stone.

The third place I turned to explore Spanish learning was by utilizing a pen pal. I started writing letters in Spanish to a friend who speaks Spanish fluently. It was wonderful until I got busy and stopped writing. There are numerous websites that specialize in connecting people that want to practice their language skills. One such website can be found here. One of the benefits of these websites is that they can connect you with a native speaker in the language you want to learn, where that native speaker reciprocally wants to learn your native language. During verbal practice, they recommend splitting the time speaking in each language so that each person gets practice. Some websites/services will even provide speaking prompts so that you don’t even have to think of topics to talk about. Other services such as SKYPE can be used as a free way to contact people once you have found them. You can even video chat if you have the equipment. I haven’t actually used any of these internet services (besides Skype), but I really like the idea!

The last thing to do was to actually move to a Spanish speaking country. Check!

I currently go to an hour long spanish lesson once a week. It is a one-on-one session with a native speaker and it costs me $10US an hour. The whole lesson is in spanish unless I have specific questions about vocabulary translations. The lessons are arranged such that we spend about half the time chatting about life and practice using specific words, tenses, or grammar. The rest of the time is spent doing exercises that practice vocabulary, verb conjugation, or speaking skills. I am thoroughly enjoying myself!

Stay tuned later in the week for our spanish speaking experiences here in Uruguay.

Vaccinations

Sorry we’ve been MIA for a while. Nothing bad has happened, but we’ve neglected the blog a bit in favor of interacting face to face with people. This has resulted in a bunch of posts that will be forthcoming, so stay tuned. We’ll start with today’s adventures and work backwards in the coming days until we’ve caught up!

“Vaccinations” might be an odd title for this post considering that we’re not little babies any more and we’re not traveling to any crazy places. Uruguay is not a third world country and does not have any crazy disease carrying monster insects. Well, turns out that we will be traveling to a crazy place with crazy disease carrying monster insects while my parents are here visiting in a couple weeks.

We are traveling to Iguazu Falls which is in the northern-most part of Argentina and borders Paraguay and Brazil. It’s the jungle and the mosquitos in that jungle sometimes carry yellow fever. It is recommended for people traveling to this area to get vaccinated for yellow fever, but it is not required. See these sources about yellow fever and where vaccinations are required: National Institutes of Health and Vaccination Info. Since yellow fever is a very serious disease and at the request of my parents, we got vaccinated for it.

Montevideo has a dedicated office at the port for travelers who want to be vaccinated against yellow fever. I imagine this is because there is a very real risk of yellow fever in many northern parts of South America and many countries require travelers to be vaccinated against it before being granted entry into the country. This is definitely the case for travelers to Brazil.

So what does one do to actually get vaccinated for yellow fever? Well it’s a four step process. The first step is a phone call. This was a very interesting step considering my tenuous understanding of the spanish language and the lack of facial expressions and hand gestures for contextual support. After figuring out how to actually make a phone call on my cell phone (dial 0 and 2 before the number in case you’re wondering), I fairly easily stated what I was calling about, told the nice lady where we were traveling, and set up an appointment for 9 am Friday morning.

Then she said she had some questions to ask me. I understood that, but could not for the life of me comprehend the actual questions she asked me. This became apparent fairly quickly and she handed the phone to a man who’s english was just as bad as my spanish. After some exchanges in “spanglish” I managed to answer the questions to his satisfaction and he wished me happy travels and hung up.

The second step in getting vaccinated against yellow fever is to figure out where the heck the office is. The office of “Sanidad de Fronteras” is at the port of Montevideo, which is a fairly large place. There is a cruise line terminal, the buquebus (boat to Argentina) terminal, and a variety of large and imposing brick buildings. On google maps it was very clear where we were suppose to go. Unfortunately reality sometimes doesn’t look like google maps.

What did we do? We asked someone who said to go until reaching the big brick building and the office was at the end. He also pointed in the direction we should be going. At the end of this brick building there was a pair of glass doors that looked like it could be a doctor’s office. We went in and asked again and were told it was around the corner. As we were walking out one of the dock crew smiled and pointed around the corner. Guess we’re just that apparent.

Looking toward the end of the very large brick buildings. The Sanidad de Fronteras is at the very end!

Well we got to the unlabeled door around the corner and went in. Signs were plastered everywhere saying that the yellow fever office was on the first floor, so we went up.

The unmarked doorway to the vaccination clinic.

Signs posted up in the office.

Stairway up to the vaccination office.

The third step in getting vaccinated against yellow fever is waiting to get the shot. On going upstairs, we found ourselves in a dark foyer with several closed office doors (looking deserted), a locked bathroom, and one door in the corner that said “Fiebre Amarilla” (i.e. yellow fever). There were 5 people already standing in the foyer. They had all made appointments for 9 AM and were upset about having to wait in line and apparently it doesn’t matter if you make an appointment because they just call the next person in line.

While we were waiting the man behind us saw our passports and asked incredulously if we needed them, at which time we told him that we were from the United States and that we were told to bring them. Our answer quelled his fears and he asked us where we were traveling.

The fourth step in getting vaccinated against yellow fever is actually getting the shot. We were called into the office which consisted of one room containing three people: a woman acting as receptionist, a man answering phones, and a nurse. The room had a couple desks which the first two people were sitting at and a corner with a curtain where the shots were actually administered. The nurse was wonderful and put us at ease right away while the receptionist took our information and drew up our international vaccination cards. We paid $352 pesos each (about $17US) for each shot, and that was only because we didn’t have international vaccination cards already. I think the shot is free for Uruguayan citizens.

Before we actually got the shots we had to answer a bunch of questions, many of the same ones that I had already answered on the phone: allergic to eggs? allergic to antibiotics? pregnant? and other vaccinations in the last 30 days? The she gave us some mandates and advice… Don’t get pregnant in the next 3 months (check!), keep eating and exercising regularly, and if we got a fever to just use an over-the-counter remedy. All this in spanish. She spoke slowly and deliberately, but we both understood every word she had to say which also put us both at ease.

The shot itself may have been the least painful shot I have received in my adult life. Here’s to hoping that there aren’t any side effects! We thanked them heartily and made our way home.

The Cellular Adventure

We all have working cell phones!

None of us were sure that we wanted cell phones while we were here. We spent many a night back in Atlanta joking about buying “burner cell phones” that we could burn when we were done with them, just like some kind of James Bond movie. We talked to a bunch of people. Okay, mostly frisbee people, that told us about all the options for cell phones here in Montevideo. In the end, and for the price, we decided it would be silly not to have them.

Some info about cell phones here…

Everyone has one. And most people have the expensive fancy ones. There aren’t a whole lot of IPhones wandering around because of the import taxes but there sure are some close copies. Most of the small cell phone stands and electronics stores only advertise their most expensive wares (some things don’t change regardless of where you are in the world).

A lot of people have pre-paid plans. These aren’t as common in the U.S. but it seems like it’s the way to go here. Each month you pay between 10 and 500 pesos which gets you minutes. Depending on your plan, each minute you talk can cost from 4-10 pesos. In addition to the minutes you pay for up front, you also get 1000 minutes to call three free lines. You can call 1 other cell phone for free, you can text 1 other cell phone for free, and you can call 1 land line for free. When it comes time to re-charge your phone you can just walk down the street to the Abitab (they are everywhere and can do lots more than just re-charge phones) and give them your number.

So we went out in search of cell phones last weekend, only to realize that stores are only open from 10 am to 1 pm on saturdays and it was almost 5 pm. We tried again on tuesday. We got to the store and of course it was closed for lunch, but just our luck Matt had wandered a bit in that area trying to get to a bus stop and saw another cell store.

The security guard opened the door (it seems that most stores have security guards at the doors) and we went straight to the counter and told the lady that we wanted the cheapest cell phone they had and a pre-paid plan, and oh by the way, that we didn’t speak spanish very well. That sealed the deal. She was very nice, spoke no english, and kept asking us if we understood what she was saying. We had all prepared a bit for this adventure (Asa more than Matt or I) by translating the majority of the cell companies’ website and knew most of the key words we would need for the interaction. We understood her pretty well, or at least didn’t have any major miscommunications.

So Asa and I both got the same, cheap $30US phone which we are still figuring out how to distinguish from each other. We got SIM cards to put in them which came with a 300 peso pre-paid plan. Matt had his iPhone which he jail broke and just got a new SIM card to put in it with a pre-paid plan.

So Asa and I can call each other for free, we can both text Matt for free, Matt can text me for free and call Asa for free, and we can all call the phone at The Little House for free. We’ve got a nice little free cell triangle going on!