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
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
Living in another country while trying to learn the language is a lot
like watching a movie
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.
APPLYING THE MODELS
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
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
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.