After Hurricane Andrew knocked my South Florida community back to the Pleistocene, my commute became surreal. It could have been worse. Hundreds of people lost their homes. I lost only my patience as my drive home was measured in geological time. At least I had a roof–even if that roof was over an hour from my office. Each day added detours to the detours as I tried to figure out how to avoid losing my mind crawling though traffic.
The answer? Language tapes! I had been meaning to improve my Spanish; endless automotive creeping at 15 miles per hour provided the opportunity. “Donde esta la embajada de estados unidos?” the cassette intoned. “Donde esta la embajada de estados unidos?” I dutifully responded. If I were ever lost (“perdio”) in Nicaragua or Argentina, I would be able to ask where the embassy was with the best of them.
Language does not come easy to me. It took dozens and dozens of repetitions to learn “this is broken” (“esto esta roto,”) “can you fix this?” (“puedes arreglar esto?”) and “our travelers checks have been stolen,” (“nuestros cheques de viajero han sido robados.”) It took me less time to note–as have any number of travel authors before me–that nothing good ever happens. Were language tapes written by those suffering from major depression? Were there no words in Spanish to communicate “what a lovely town” or “how nice to meet you”? No. The only activities worth noting involved broken cars, muggings, and natural disasters. Hopefully I could take some solace in knowing that my last words for “earthquake” (“terremoto”) and landslide (“el desprendimiento de tierras”) were the correct ones.
Failing to plan may be planning to fail, but so much negativity seemed to meet my mood as I commuted through hurricane ravaged Miami. Could I even look forward to a fluent vacation in South America? Nah. I would only be able to communicate about disasters–broken appliances and tectonic shifts. It seemed that the topics on the language tapes matched the devastation through which I was driving.
Now that sunnier days have prevailed, I am interested in a cheerier vocabulary. I anticipate more pleasant scenarios. What a beautiful view! (“Que vista tan hermosa!”) That was delicious. (“Eso estava delicioso.”) May I have some more? (“Puedo tener algo mas?”)
I also listen to parents. Unlike English-Spanish translations which are straight forward–“peligroso!” always means “danger!”–children have room to interpret, even when parent and child are supposedly both speaking English. “Did you do your homework?” can mean, “I share your joy in a job well done, let’s go do something fun together.” But “did you do your homework?” can also be heard as, “I don’t think you’re smart enough or motivated enough to do this homework on your own at the proper level and the future is uncertain and what is going to happen because I’m not going to be here forever to provide for you and we’re all going to die possibly in a disaster for which I don’t even know the proper translation!”
Perhaps we could examine the vocabulary we use with our beloved children. Are we communicating calm, encouragement, and joy? Or are the majority of our words negative and concerning? “Give me a hand setting the table” can mean, “we have shared responsibilities; we love and help one another and enjoy family dinners.” But “give me a hand setting the table” can also convey, “you need to learn responsibility, I’m too busy to help you or enjoy our time together, and I’d rather work or connect with my friends instead or hanging out with my child.”
Words have power. Parents have power. Let’s use our power to use words that convey joy (“alegria”) rather than despair, (“desesperacion!”)