Since I stepped off the plane in El Salvador almost a month ago, every day has brought its fair share of discoveries, new questions, and challenges-and a pretty hefty mix of emotions as well. Living in a different culture definitely has its ups and downs, but one thing is for sure-it is oh so exciting.
By far the quickest difference to notice is the language. The national language in El Salvador is Spanish, which means it’s time for me to become bilingual! Definitely easier said than done. I studied Spanish in high school and a bit in college, but textbook Spanish (traditional, European Spanish) can vary a surprising amount from Salvadoran spoken Spanish. I am naturally a little shy, and throwing my second language into the mix constantly challenges me to go outside of my comfort zone.
I’m living in a world right now where I don’t understand the punchline to most jokes, words that I know to technically translate into one thing actually mean something completely different in context, and I’m not able to express myself in the way I am used to doing back in the States. I become mentally exhausted much more quickly, and my emotions are running a little bit higher than usual. Resisting the temptation to speak English with my bilingual friends is way harder than I expected, especially because they are getting used to me speaking Spanish with them!
As much as an uphill climb as learning Spanish is, I must say I’m absolutely loving it. Each day I feel myself improving, and it’s helping to strengthen my relationships with the locals here. As I learn more Spanish, I’m learning more and more about Salvadoran culture and about how they view the world. I’m able to connect with people on a deeper level by speaking to them in their own language instead of through a translator. I’m able to take more initiative when I need something or am trying to help someone. Last week, one of our spunkiest boys at our Children’s Center in Soyapango, Saúl, turned to me as I was helping him with a craft and said with a very serious look on his face, “Ya habla muy bien.” or “You already talk really well.” I never thought I’d be so excited to get affirmation from a 5-year-old, but God has thrown many figurative high fives my way over the last few weeks! I’ve even started helping to translate for the mission teams we’ve hosted since I moved here, a concept that would have completely terrified me a year ago. It definitely isn’t easy, but each time I’m able to talk to one of our kids at the Centers about their day, or order food on my own, or understand when someone asks me to do something, I’m reminded that it is so worth it.
How incredible is our God that created us with the ability to learn multiple languages, breaking down barriers between His people in the process. God has been revealing so much about these people through their language, and they have been teaching me so much about grace and patience as they work with me while I learn. Even though I can feel misunderstood as I make mistakes in Spanish, God is continuously misunderstood and judged by people on Earth. Despite how frustrating this has to be, He continues to love us unconditionally in His infinite grace.
I’ve been reminded recently of Moses’s experience when God told him to plead to Pharaoh on behalf of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt. Moses felt unqualified for the job, but the Lord showed Him, and all of us, that Moses’s success is not dependent on his own ability, but that of God’s.
Moses said to the Lord, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.”
The Lord said to him, “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”
Exodus 4:10-12 (NIV)
In His infinite wisdom, God intimately understands the struggles I go through, whether they be in learning Spanish or otherwise. I am comforted knowing it is not my personal struggle, but instead part of His plan to bring glory to His power and perfection while I am in El Salvador.
The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you.
Exodus 34:10b (NIV)