escuela horizonte
This webpage was originally constructed in Augues 2002 as a final project for my INLS 180 Communications class through the UNC-Chapel Hill Information & Library Science Graduate program.


The first purpose of this website is to document and evaluate my experiences in Nicaragua. The second purpose is to look at how being an outsider with limited language abilities affected my experience as a communicator. As back drop for the paper, I would like to reference Elfreda Chatman's 1996 article entitled, "The Impoverished Life-World of Outsiders." I found the article useful in terms of how I identified as an outsider to the language and culture I found myself surrounded by. I'd also like to pull from the concepts presented by Nicholas Belkin around senders, receivers, channels and the noise that interferes with understanding and successful communication. Both articles helped me think about my experiences in Nicaragua of trying to understand and be understood in a language and environment new to me.


I recently spent four weeks living with a family in Nicaragua. Trying to learn Spanish while also trying to play cards, make friends, find my way home, describe what kind of sick my stomach felt, or give directions to a taxi driver was a twenty-four-hour-a-day exercise in communication. I lived in Esteli, a small town in the cool mountains of northern Nicaragua. I was a guest of three of the town's 8000+ residents: a family made up of a 17 year-old brother (Israel), his 12 year-old sister (Lynda), and their 50+ year-old aunt (Lucila). Israel and Lynda lived with their aunt because the house their mom and dad and other brother lived in was lacking sufficient room for everyone. So, while the family worked to finish a room they were adding on to their house, Israel and Lynda stayed down the street and up the hill at their aunt's house. And so did I.

Living in another country while trying to learn the language is a lot like watching a movie…on TV…from far away…with the sound down real low.
Things happen, people enter and leave in flurries of sounds and gestures. There are words and effort, but there's not always full understanding. During the most frustrating times there's almost more noise and static than actual communication of specific thoughts or ideas. Other times not understanding and not being understood actually passes as bliss. Most things that happen are a surprise and most interactions are open to interpretation. Everyday every interaction was rich with the possibility of misunderstanding.

Gestures and emotions add emphasis, color, and clarity to communication interactions. But they truly are only part of what's trying to get said. Words are what we choose. I found that when I didn't know the words, I didn't actually understand how they added up to any sort of meaning. Familiar words would pop around a conversation, but when I didn't know the context and how the words were being used together, the meaning was usually lost on me.


I felt challenged constantly to try and express myself. Many of my experiences and initial feelings and reactions are documented in the six different journal entries I sent out to folks back home in the US. I started writing the emails rather light-heartedly. I thought I would just write now and then to check in and let people know how I was doing. The emails became much more important to me than just the usual "I'm fine, hope all is well with you, too" type check-in. They became the only reliable channel of communication I had in which I both understand and expected to be understood. Reading words without pausing for recognition or composing thoughts without having to then dumb them down to be expressed in one of only a handful of words I knew became vital.

I was experiencing such a trickle of communication in Spanish because of all the noise of simply not knowing what words meant and what words I needed to say what I needed to say. The channel I had been used to (simple verbal communication) failed me more than I expected because I didn't have deft enough decoding skills yet. As an outsider to the language and culture I was immersed in, I became accutely aware of the importance of clear channels and effective decoding tools. In fact, without the proficiency to decode messages, I was left to guess and wait and see in a lot of situations. Even when I was a sender, I still did not have the agility, ease, or skill people grow used to in their own language.

Chatman's conclusion is that people take certain risks in communication in order to share or withhold information that may be relative depending on the context and timing of the communication need. She goes on to deduce that such behavior indicates some type of social norm. When people are not able to break through to the inner core of communication in which secrets pass freely as facts, even if they understand the words they may misunderstand the message. This happened to me all the time. The experiences ranged from amusing to humiliating and then back around to exciting and then back to boring.

The examples are quite clear where foreign language is concerned. Words have different meanings in different contexts.
Literally, in Spanish certain verbs have different meanings in the simple past than when used in the present. The verb "saber" means "to know" (information) in the present tense. In the preterite (simple past), however, "supe" is used to mean "found out." Similar changes occur with the verbs "to have" (which goes to "received"), "to want" (goes to "tried"), and "to know" (goes to "met" in the simple past). Spanish is not unique in this way. Every language has its inconsistencies, its places where even the most relied upon rules do not apply. Being an outsider of any sort is very much about aquainting one's self with the unknown, the nonsensicle, and the inconsistent; just as being an insider is equally about taking all the rules and exceptions to rules for granted.


As information professionals we will be required to know. It is within the expectations on us as librarians, database administrators, systems analysts, mentors, and story tellers to know our collections and those who seak to use them. The trick, and what I experienced on a minute to minute basis in Nicaragua, is what a difference understanding context means to the understanding of any message. It will be important to remain slow and attentive when it comes to paying attention to people and finding creative and inclusive ways to connect people with the information they want, need, and/or expect. Indeed the loudest noise is any system is often a professional's own assumptions and blindspots.