Thursday, November 30, 2017

Multilingual Like Whoa

Living in Cartagena is like living in a whirlpool of language, and it’s not only because it’s a massive tourist destination. Being trilingual, I’ve never had to use all three of my languages simultaneously. In Miami, I’ve gotten into the habit of speaking a mix of English and Spanish (the notorious Miami Spanglish). When I was a student, I studied French and English simultaneously, but in separate classes with distinct teachers and textbooks. Many of my friends in middle and high school had French backgrounds and some of them had only recently made the move from Europe. As a result, my friend group was dubbed “The Frenchies” for our constant use of the language. But usually, I’ve used my languages one at a time—French when I’m visiting my family in Europe, Spanish when I’ve traveled through Spain and Latin America, English when I’m visiting all the former and current British colonies around the world.



But living in Cartagena has upended all linguistic delineations. Both my work and social lives are a soup of languages, and I’m constantly switching between English, French and Spanish. At the Universidad de Cartagena, I’ve been teaching English in their Foreign Languages program. The students I teach are learning English and French intensively. Most of my colleagues are proficient in all three languages, and the other foreign language assistants are also trilingual. As it turns out, all three of us have French heritage: one is 100% French, one is Scottish-French, and I’m my own wacky combination—French Belgian Cuban American. Amongst each other, we move fluidly between all three languages. Banter in the teacher’s lounge is always trilingual, sometimes to hilarious effect. And the students are unceasingly impressive with their high levels of English and French.

The residents at the hotel where I live are a mish-mash of Colombians and Europeans. French, Spanish, Italian, Andorran, and lots and lots of Germans. (Interestingly, I haven’t met any other Americans during my time in Cartagena, besides a Puerto Rican woman who’s doing volunteer work in Cartagena and an artist who’s been living in the hotel for 29 years and has raised his Colombian-American children in this beautiful place.) As you can imagine, we’re quite the international bunch and our conversations take on the vibrant colors of each of our homelands. A dinner on the patio is never boring, I’ll tell you that much.

Now let’s add another element to the mix: German. As you may know, my partner is German, or ‘el aleman alto’ as they call him here. (The tall German.) Somehow, I’ve been thrown into the German category by virtue of living in the same apartment as him. Perhaps it’s just easier to say “The German couple live there”? Anyway, this does not change the fact that I am not German, nor do I speak German.


Interesting fact about Colombians: there are currently 14,000 Colombians in Germany right now. In fact, there’s enough of a migration that a German organization was inspired to publish this study, “The Colombian diaspora in Germany: transnational action and country of origin-related involvement.” Many Colombians you meet have a cousin or a son or a brother in Germany. Apparently, Colombians love Germany! Perhaps this bond between the countries has been created because Germans seem to love Colombia, too. At the hotel there is a predominant German presence. One of my neighbors directs the Casa Cultural Colombo Alemana, a German language school with great events and resources for anyone wanting to immerse themselves into German culture. And I’d say they have a very successful operation. Last month, we attended an Oktoberfest in Cartagena and next week, we’ll be attending a traditional Weihnachtsmarkt, or German Christmas market. They even teach German classes on the nearby Islas del Rosario!

I’ve really enjoyed learning German. My teacher is from Barranquilla but you’d never guess it from her impeccable German skills! As someone who’s never really had to learn a language from zero, it’s a very humbling and often frustrating experience. But I’ve got a patient teacher at home who helps me with my homework. The philosophy at the German school is to speak as much German as possible, even if what you end up speaking is a mish-mash of Spanish and German, or Alemañol as they call it. You should see my notes from class: an eruption of German, Spanish, and English. Lucky, I am beginning to see some slight similarities between German and English, but German is still a wild beast all on its own, but I aim to tame it!

My teacher said to label everything in my house... so I did!
At times it feels like my brain is going to explode from switching between English, French, Spanish and GERMAN, but hopefully this experience is like weightlifting for my brain. Sometimes I’m mamado, as they say here on the coast. Totally wrung out. But often it’s just exhilarating to be able to put all my languages to use in one day, and sometimes, in one sentence!