Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Lesson in Language and Respect from Mexico

I just returned last week from a three day LAUNCH Conference on Worship in Juarez, Mexico for the Anchored Music Ministries - Border Evangelism and Mercy Ministries (better known as BEAMM) partnership.

Because of my desire to communicate well and show respect to those who do not speak my own native language, I learned a number of songs in Spanish. I use the term 'learned' loosely. I attempted. I also had songs translated into Spanish. The results were that I led them in worship and singing on three occasions and it was well received. I also proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that I don't speak Spanish.

From mispronouncing the word ahora as it looks instead of with the silent 'h' as proper -- giving it a much closer sound to implying what it sounds like it implies in English than the Spanish meaning of 'now' -- to my slaughter of syntax by emphasizing the wrong syllables, I in every way showed myself a neophyte Spanish speaker. But the lesson here was in the gracious response of the Mexicans.

No one criticized me. No one frowned. And no one cried out to me to stop murdering their language. There were no snide comments to the missionaries or by them. Everyone was very gracious. Part of this is the Mexican culture, and Latin American culture in general, where people avoid offending or embarrassing others with open criticism. But even in private, they were more likely to comment on my genuine attempt to learn and communicate in Spanish than my failures in the process.

I wonder if we are as gracious in the American culture.

How many times have I heard someone with a foreign accent struggling to communicate at a retail counter or in a hotel or restaurant, only to have an American criticize "the word is ______ instead of _______."? How many times have I heard comments like "learn English buddy, you're in America!" or "What, you no speakey English?" I shamefully must even admit to my own past frustration listening to someone attempt the language who seemed to have little understanding of it. These Mexican hosts put me to shame.

Sometimes I think English has become so dominant as a language of business and tourism that we just feel like we have a God-given right to expect people will speak it wherever we go. I think we somehow feel like it is obligatory, when we fail to even attempt to learn other languages so we can communicate. In tourist areas, one can get away with such culture arrogance but not in interior cities which rarely see tourism or outside core attractions and border areas. No one the stereotype of the 'arrogant American' is so predominant and so reviled. In fact, as an experienced traveller, I have joined the ranks of those Americans who abhor encounters with fellow Americans who fall into this category. This despite the fact that I know I myself still fall into that category sometimes.

Language is often the ultimate culture clash. How nice it was to be allowed to stumble just because I was trying so hard. How nice it was to have people graciously understand and offer suggested interpretations until we could actually communicate or even just gloss over obvious errors in the interest of graciousness. I must now do better at doing the same when I meet others in a similar position to the one I was in there in Mexico.

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