a surprisingly empowering week away from Luganda

About fifteen years ago, at the tender age of 16, I found myself in the living room of a Guatemalan family, trying desperately to communicate with them even though I'd only ever studied French. I wanted so badly to be able to talk to them and understand their world, and also to explain my own. It was a comedy of errors, most notably when I looked up the wrong version of "meet/meat" in the dictionary and accidentally told them that I'd eaten Jack Hanna, the TV wildlife personality.

That moment of frustration - the complete inability to communicate even basic thoughts - led me to begin studying Spanish several years later.

Fast forward fifteen years. As I've discussed earlier, I was pretty worried about my spring break trip back to Guatemala and what it would mean for my Luganda study. After several years of Spanish classes in college, Spanish is no longer very useful to me, and so I was worried about both a) being able to use my Spanish as needed in Guatemala; and b) forgetting Luganda once I started using my Spanish.

Despite this fear, before leaving on vacation, I decided I would not try and study Luganda while in Guatemala. I didn't want to make a commitment to study that I could not keep, and I wanted to focus on using one language at a time. Generally, I approached the upcoming trip with a mix of guilt and trepidation, certain that it would be a bad one for me with regard to any and all language study.

Surprisingly, my time in Guatemala was completely the opposite. I left feeling more empowered than I ever have about studying Luganda, and language learning more generally.

Upon my arrival, I discovered that despite about eight years away from Spanish, I still remembered so much! I needed no translation, was able to express myself using past, present, future, conditional, and reflexive verbs, and had lengthy conversations about everything from family updates, to the new mayor in town, to violence against women. If anything, my Spanish felt better and easier to use than ever!

I think that part of the reason for this ease of communication was because of this class. I have learned to speak even when I fear making mistakes. I have learned that by speaking, I am able to learn even more than through other methods. Without feeling like I was being graded or working towards anything other than the ability to communicate with another person, I was free to just try. And that freedom really helped me get past any anxiety I might have had.

The real story here, though, is not the proficiency of my Spanish, but how this experience helped my Luganda. First and foremost, it felt so empowering to communicate with someone else in another language, and I feel even more motivated to be able to achieve that with Luganda. More than that, I feel more sure than ever that it is possible for me to achieve this. Thinking back to my first painful attempts at learning Spanish, I would've never believed that I'd ever be proficient. To realize that I went from knowing literally nothing to being able to operate completely on my own in Spanish makes me believe that it's possible for me to do the same in Luganda.

Finally, outside of the emotional work of the week, there were a number of times where my Spanish and Luganda intersected. First, while driving to San Lucas Toliman, where we stayed, I mentally identified as many thing along the side of the road as I could in both Luganda and Spanish. I tried to take note of when I knew a word for something in Spanish but not Luganda, or the reverse. The overlap was pretty big, though! I took this approach a number of times over the week, mentally thinking through things in both languages when it made sense.

Additionally, with some of my Guatemalan friends, I shared with them that I was learning Luganda. They were all excited on my behalf, and asked me questions about the language. For some people, I described how the structure of Luganda was different from that of Spanish. For others, they asked me for the vocabulary of things we saw in the house or on the street. In both cases, I got to actively practice my Luganda, with the added benefit of some emotional support from my friends.

Of course, there were times when things weren't perfect. Usually by the end of the day, I could feel that my brain was tired, and I would mix up things in Spanish, substituting either grammar or vocabulary in Luganda. There were some words that have become so automatic for me in Luganda that I would frequently forget them in Spanish (cow, ente, and chair, entebe, come to mind). And, if someone thanked me for something, my knee jerk reaction was to respond with "kale!" rather than "de nada." I also used a number of non-verbal Ugandan cues, including raising my eyebrows to say yes, or to show agreement by saying "mmmm." Like my post several weeks ago, rather than be too upset by these mistakes, I am choosing to chalk them up to growth in Luganda rather than overall language confusion. To me, they represent progress.

I feel incredibly empowered about language study after this past week. I am hoping I can remember this feeling when proficiency feels far away in Luganda. In the meantime, though, I'm updating my resume to more accurately reflect my Spanish abilities. :)


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