Name: Phoebe Natale
Location of Study: Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala
Program of Study: Proyecto Linguistica Quetzalteco de Español
Sponsors: Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures, Kellogg Institute for International Studies
A brief personal bio:
I am a rising sophomore of the class of 2018 studying psychology and business economics at the University of Notre Dame. I have been drawn to the Spanish language since elementary school in Vienna, Virginia, and my interest has only grown since coming to Notre Dame. Though I have had the chance to travel with my family in the past, I am ecstatic for this opportunity to experience a completely new country and culture in a very intimate way.
Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:
This SLA Grant will allow me to develop skills and gain experience that I will use in whatever career I choose to pursue. Should I decide to enter the psychology world as a practicing clinician or as a researcher, the conversation skills and cultural exposure I will have gained from this experience will allow me to reach out to a whole other community and to better understand how culture affects the human experience. If instead I decide to work in micro-finance or a similar business industry, learning Spanish will allow me to work on or volunteer for projects in Latino communities and nations in which I otherwise might not have been able to make such a positive impact.
My SLA Grant is providing an opportunity for me to challenge myself in multiple ways. Undoubtedly, my mental stamina and strength will be challenged as I will continuously be studying, making mistakes, and learning from those mistakes. Additionally, I believe that immersing myself for six weeks will positively impact my understanding of Guatemalan/Latin American culture and tradition.
What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:
My main goal for this experience is to return to the United States with confidence in my speaking ability and knowledge of the language to the point where I can converse with a native speaker without difficulty. I hope to be able to hold everyday conversations but also be able to speak about psychology and business in professional settings. In addition to these language-related goals, I hope to gain a broader understanding of Latin American culture in general and of Guatemalan culture specifically. I intend to take advantage of every opportunity to learn throughout this experience and explore all that the country and the program has to offer.
My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:
- By the end of the summer, I will be able to confidently and fluidly have a conversation with any native Spanish speaker.
- At the end of my summer study abroad, I will be able to accurately communicate thoughts and ideas about psychology and micro-finance/business in a professional manner.
- At the end of my summer study abroad, I will have a deeper understanding of cultural differences as they pertain to everyday life and specifically mental health.
My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:
PLQE provides so many opportunities for language learning and cultural experiences through their language immersion program. I will spend five hours in the morning with a private tutor who will guide me through grammar, vocabulary, and culture. I will be able to form personal relationships with each tutor I work with and learn from a variety of teaching styles. Each tutor possess expansive knowledge of Guatemalan history, and many have had first-hand experience with the fights for social justice, so I will learn much more than what I would learn in a traditional, multi-student class setting.
Additionally, I will be staying with a local family where I will become a part of its everyday life and where I believe the core of my outside learning will take place. I will take time to become familiar with Guatemala and give back to the Xela community by volunteering at the culture center next door to the school, where I will have the opportunity to work with children from the community. I hope to attend several community talks and participate on cultural excursions planned by the school or thought up by myself and my fellow students.
Reflective Journal Entry 1:
After my first week here in Guatemala, I know this entire experience is going to be one big adventure! I’ll admit, throughout the day on Sunday (at the airport, on the bus to Quetzaltenango, in the taxi on the way to the school), I was NERVOUS. Of course I was ecstatic to be here, but I also wasn’t sure what to expect. However, the director at PLQ and my host family quickly calmed my nerves and welcomed me warmly to their city and into their culture.
I’ve noticed several things during this first week in Quetzaltenango (Xela). Almost every time I have passed someone in the street or just walking around the school, we always exchange pleasantries and inquire as to the well-being of each other. I hadn’t expected this kind of warmth from strangers, especially since I’m clearly not a local, but this attitude helped me feel more comfortable in a place in which otherwise I felt like an outsider. Additionally, I’ve noticed that teachers and my host family speak to me a bit slower than they speak with other natives and with more precise enunciation. Even strangers begin speaking to me in this way once they realize that I am not fluent. Though I have appreciated this gesture this week as I’ve been getting acclimated, I hope that soon in the future I will be able to communicate with them at their normal pace and clarity.
At first, I was intimidated by the idea of 5 hours of private tutoring during the week, but I was pleasantly surprised by my experiences this week. Though at times I felt fatigued, I never felt bored because I was always engaged with my instructor in some way: conversation mostly, but also as we reviewed grammar topics and completed practice activities. I genuinely enjoyed my conversations with my instructor as they not only included Spanish language topics but discussions about Guatemalan culture and politics, personal experiences, and American culture.
PLQ plans several events throughout the week for its students, both in the morning and in the afternoon to accommodate everyone. This week I had the opportunity to watch a documentary on the corporation (in Spanish of course), attend two conferences (one an analysis of the political situation in Guatemala, the other a presentation on the Mayan cosmovision), play soccer with the students and instructors of PLQ and another language school, and finally help cook the meal to be eaten at the weekly Friday night graduation. Helping to cook the meal for graduation was one of my more rewarding experiences as I was able to learn about a local dish, help prepare it, and watch as others (and myself) enjoyed the creation.
The meal that a few other students and I helped prepare was called “ponche de papas,” a complicated creation which requires extensive preparation and cooking time. Otil, the woman who taught us about the dish, explained that it is not only a typical Guatemalan dish, but one that originated in Xela. The potato mixture includes many potatoes, paprika, salt, onion, peppers, french bread, other local spices, and an entire bottle of vegetable oil – these ingredients are then all mixed together in a large tub. Otil did this preparation before the beginning of the cooking class, so our job was to help wrap the concoction in tamale leaves. Otil would place a scoop of the potatoes in a tamale leaf, add a piece of raw chicken and a pepper, and hand it to one of us to wrap. She emphasized the importance of wrapping the leaf tightly and completely to prevent anything from spilling out into the pot. Eventually, the other students and I got the hang of the process, and soon there was a large pot full of ponche de papas ready to cook for the next two hours. Since food is such an important part of Guatemalan life, I feel lucky to have been able to take part in this event – and it was delicious to eat!
This coming week, I hope to continue to explore this wonderful city and improve my conversation skills so that I can take part in more thought provoking, diverse discussions.
Reflective Journal Entry 2:
This week has been filled with more rain than I have ever experienced at one time before. Though I arrived here knowing that it is currently the rainy season, I was under the impression from several people that the rain would come in a one to two hour wave in the afternoon…boy was that wrong. For three days straight, the heavens opened and rain poured down on the entire city for the entire day and into the night. I’m amazed that the cobblestone streets have held up (as well as very old cobblestone streets can).
During several of my classes, my instructors have used and explained several slang words used by locals, most of them on the younger side. For your information and entertainment, here are definitions of three more interesting terms:
El/la mango (n): a person who is extremely physically attractive
Cuate (n): friend; used impersonally and with those very close to oneself
The “okay” sign [thumb and index finger touching with the other three fingers in the air] (n): a very offensive gesture with the same meaning as the middle finger
Though the first two words are not considered inappropriate, they are usually used by younger individuals in casual conversation. When I asked my host sisters (aged 16 and 26) and one sister’s boyfriend (aged 26) if they had heard these terms, they all responded positively and proceeded to provide me with who they believed were “mangoes” (Enrique Iglesias was agreed upon by all of the females in the room). When I also mentioned the okay sign, they agreed that it was definitely a rude, inappropriate gesture that should not be used, especially by me, a foreigner. Of course, I have accidentally used it out of habit at school and at home and then apologized profusely, but I’ve become more aware of how I use hand gestures during conversation. The last thing I need is to make a stranger angry with me.
One of my instructors had originally explained these words to me and confirmed my prior understanding of the okay gesture, and she had about the same reaction as my host sisters/brother. She enjoyed explaining the word “mango” to me, and informed me that, “To me, President Obama is a mango,” which I found amusing. When I spoke to her and the director of PLQ about the okay gesture, they reacted by saying that their work with many American students has somewhat desensitized them to its usage, though naturally they still feel slightly offended when it’s used. They don’t take it as a personal offense but wish that more cultural research would be done before traveling to Guatemala – they fear that cultural ignorance could potentially cause problems for any unaware foreigners. Luckily for me, both independent research and SLA guidelines have helped me feel a bit more prepared for cultural differences here.
As for language learning, this week has been a bit frustrating for me. My listening skills have improved, and I’ve been semi-successfully incorporating the grammar I’m working on into conversation. However, I seem to get “speaker’s block” during almost every conversation I have. As soon as my instructor asks a question, my mind seems to empty of both Spanish and English, leaving me stumbling and searching for words that I know were there 10 seconds ago. I’ve noticed that I can respond a bit more fluidly when I’m speaking with my host family or to fellow classmates – maybe I’m more relaxed. Either way, I hope to remedy this by beginning to think in Spanish (instead of thinking in English and trying to translate) and by simply speaking whatever comes to mind without second guessing my grammar or vocabulary. Hopefully my confidence in speaking will improve, and I’ll be having fluent conversations in no time!
[Correction: In my last post, I wrote about a traditional meal that other student’s and I prepared. That meal is called “pache de papas” and not “ponche de papas” as I wrote. I misheard the cooking instructor, and though the former does exist, we made the latter!]
Reflective Journal Entry 3:
Well, what a week it has been!
I was so excited when I was able to meet up with my friend Alexis, who initially pointed me in the direction of PLQ. Alexis is also a student at Notre Dame, though a year older than me, and studied at PLQ last summer. This summer, she has returned to Xela to start a cooperative with a group of local women. The women will be trained to make soap – seems an odd product to choose at first, but when you factor in the fact that many Guatemalans don’t practice great hygiene and have parasites as a result, it makes perfect sense. She hopes that hygiene training will help the women and customers prevent parasites and that the cooperative will allow the women to make a fair wage. I loved hearing about the work that she’s doing, and it was a wonderful way to start the week.
My instructor this week favored having conversations over grammar exercises and translations – something that I truly enjoyed! She was well-versed in psychology and has had experience in social work, which made having these conversations even more interesting and enlightening for me. I not only practiced my conversation skills but was able to learn psychology vocabulary and about what mental health services are like here in Xela. Unfortunately, similar to the United States, there remains a stigma around mental health. Consequently, many that need help don’t seek it, and those that do lack their choice in practitioner, if they can even afford a private psychologist at all. Training to be a psychologist or psychiatrist differs from the United States immensely, and not in a way that positively impacts the population. Training begins at medical school, where the person decides to concentrate in psychology, completes a year or so of classes and training, and exits a “licensed,” “trained” psychologist. During my time here in Xela, I have seen a multitude of signs along the street advertising psychiatric help, and it frustrates me that though there are so many psychologists available, they are either incompetent or too expensive for a hard-working, middle class citizen.
On a positive note, the conversational teaching style had helped relieved some of the “speaker’s block” I had earlier! I’m not anywhere near speaking with perfect fluidity, but I think that discussing issues in which I am interested helped get the ideas and thoughts flowing faster and more clearly. I had a long conversation with my host sister over dinner one night this week, and found myself pausing less and being able to answer her questions almost immediately. Hurray for progress!
My week ended with a mighty difficult trip to the highest point in Central America: Volcan Tajumulco. In the Mayan language mam, Tajumulco means “let’s go to the clouds” – and we did just that. After riding about 3.5 hours west of Xela at 4 in the morning, we arrived at the base of Tajumulco. For the next four hours, I was challenged physically, mentally, emotionally…you name it. Though the hike was only 7 kilometers, most of it was at a steep incline, making each push a little bit harder than the last. The altitude affected some (myself included), but everyone made it base camp around 2pm safe and sound. After meals and attempted sleeping, we all woke again at 3:30am to hike the final hour to the summit, where we watched the sunrise…or at least tried to. Unfortunately, such thick fog surrounded the summit that we were unable to actually watch the sun rise, only watch the sun illuminate the clouds, which was beautiful in its own way. Though the view at the summit was not what we expected, we enjoyed several absolutely gorgeous landscapes during our descent. Conquering Tajumulco was tough and exhausting, but conquer it we did!
Reflective Journal Entry 4:
A month has gone by much quicker than I expected – it’s hard to believe I only have two weeks left here in Guatemala!
This past week was a unique one for me as I had the opportunity to study at La Escuela de la Montaña (the Mountain School), PLQ’s sister school located in the countryside near several mountains and volcanoes. From the moment I arrived, I felt more relaxed – the air was cleaner, I was surrounded by lush greenery, and everything was simply quieter. It was a welcome break from the constant noise and congestion of Xela.
The Mountain School differed from the school in the city in several ways. The extremely small communities surrounding the school are poorer and do not have sufficient space to house students, so we only ate meals with our assigned families. Even with less interaction, I was able to bond with the women in the house and with the young children, who were always talkative and loved when I brought books to read with them. Since students don’t live with the families, we lived together “dorm-style” in the main building on the property, where we roomed two or three students per room and shared the bathrooms/showers. The kitchen was open for anyone’s use, and there was always ample supply of coffee and tea for anyone who needed it.
Classes at the Mountain School were held in individual covered huts that were sprinkled around the main building. I felt that the set-up was extremely conducive to focusing and learning, and my instructor and I accomplished much during our time together. Similarly to my instructor last week, my instructor this week also preferred conversation over exercises to assess my abilities, teach lessons, and practice speaking and listening comprehension – I was pleasantly surprised by the improvements I had made with my speaking skills! She took a strong interest in my psychology background, and we spent much time discussing what I learned this past year. I was also able to describe my work with JIFFI, a student-run non-profit micro-finance organization with which I work at Notre Dame, which opened up discussion about how problems with predatory payday lending exist in Guatemala as well (though they don’t necessarily use the same terminology). I found this saddening, but not surprising, and it reinforced my belief that well-intentioned micro-finance institutions have a place in and can benefit communities in every nation.
Talk of money led to discussion of foreign aid which then led inevitably to the topic of United States involvement in foreign affairs. Discussion of the United States’ government and its choices often sparks a hot debate here in Guatemala and can sometimes be a sensitive subject due to the fact that we as a nation have been deeply involved in Guatemalan affairs for several decades. Our government was involved in Guatemala’s 36 year long civil war (1960-1996) and is still involved in Guatemalan politics today. When I (tentatively) asked my instructor about her thoughts on the United States, her response was very similar to those of others I have talked to: she does not resent the United States as a whole or its people; she just deeply dislikes the United States government. A common phrase spoken to me and to other young students who inquire about feelings toward the United States is this: We do not blame you, and it is not your fault; we blame your government. If you must feel something, feel sympathy, not guilt.
While these sentiments may not be well received by some back home, I believe they are a powerful statement of how the United States can and has affected the world in a negative manner. Yes, we are a great power and have done much good, but no, we are not perfect. Our government makes mistakes – makes decisions based on motives that may not reflect those of its people – and sometimes those decisions have dire consequences. Yet, the people who could justifiably lash out at any American who steps onto their soil still welcome us with open arms. This fact alone humbles me.
If you would like to learn more about the social injustice that was the Guatemalan civil war, I invite you to visit http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/guatemala.htm which provides a comprehensive explanation of the conflict. I also encourage further independent research as the people of Guatemala are still experiencing severe repercussions of this event.
Reflective Journal Entry 5:
This week was a bit different for me since I studied in the afternoon instead of the morning as I had the previous four weeks. It was odd at first, and finishing at 7pm tired me out quickly, but the actual instruction was just as wonderful as in the morning.
To fill my mornings, I decided to venture to TRAMA Textiles, a weaving cooperative founded to give women of the armed conflict a way to make a fair livelihood, where I signed up to weave my own scarf…ambitious, I know. I knew it would be a rather difficult skill to get the hang of, but I’m surprised at how frustrated I actually was at the beginning! Preparing the string took an extraordinary amount of patience, and actually learning to use the loom took even more. The women of TRAMA were extremely kind and helpful, even when I called them over every 10 or so minutes to ask them to fix a mistake. Eventually, however, I got into a rhythm and am now almost finished with my scarf – using Notre Dame colors of course!
This weekend, three other students and I ventured to Chichicastenango, the location of an enormous market filled with anything and everything you can imagine. The main product sold was textiles of all sorts, though shoes, jewelry, and fruit made several appearances. The trip to and from Chichicastenango was quite an adventure – especially the 2 hour and 30 minute drive in a chicken bus sardine-packed with people. Despite the less than comfortable transportation, the market was incredible. I felt like it never ended – every twist and turn led to a new row of stalls with brightly colored fabric and sometimes overly-persistent vendors. In addition to the market, we visited two different churches at which Mayan ceremonies were being performed on the front steps. Though a bit hectic and frantic at times, Chichicastenango turned out to be a nice day trip for my last weekend here.
My week academically was filled with the difficult yet unavoidable subjunctive. Since there isn’t truly a direct translation of this mood in English, learning this grammar topic always is a bit difficult for students. Since I had already learned the basic formations in high school and then again last year at Notre Dame, my instructor and I spent class time going over more specific uses and how the subjunctive combines with other grammar to express certain ideas. As I’ve added more and more specific uses to my already long list, it’s been a bit difficult to keep everything straight. However, I know that with practice and persistence I’ll be able to incorporate the subjunctive (and all the other more difficult grammar topics) more fluidly into my conversation and writing.
Throughout my time here in Guatemala, the Mayan culture has been ever present. From trips to Mayan villages outside Xela to passing women in tradition Mayan dress in the streets of the city, I’ve been able to experience several aspects of the Mayan culture. Though about 80% of Guatemala’s population is indigenous, the Mayan people are considered a cultural minority and are discriminated against on a daily basis. As one of my instructors explained to me, discrimination against people of Mayan heritage is subtle and therefore difficult to punish. Laws (like the Commission Against Discrimination and Racism, or CODISRA) exist to supposedly protect against discrimination of any kind, but filing a complaint under this law is practically useless. The complainant needs to present a witness who heard or saw the act of discrimination, and even if one is presented, little is done. Simply put, one law can’t change the mindset of the people. Women who wear traditional Mayan clothing in the streets of Xela often receive snide, ugly looks and sometimes, though more rarely, verbal comments. In the case of my instructor’s family, her father insisted that her mother discontinue wearing traditional clothing to avoid this treatment, but she, along with other strong Mayan women, ignored his advice and wears her bright, ornate clothing with pride. Hopefully one day the Mayan people will be able to live without the oppression they’ve dealt with for hundreds and hundreds of years, but unfortunately that day remains far in the future.
Reflective Journal Entry 6:
My last week in Guate was a whirlwind of last minute planning, final visits to my favorite places, and several very difficult goodbyes. It’s crazy to think that six weeks went by so unbelievably quickly and that I could become so attached to a place and to a people in such a short amount of time. I’ve learned much more than just Spanish language. To demonstrate, here’s a list of the top five things I learned during my experience:
1)Things will be uncomfortable before they’re ever comfortable. Though this applies to meeting new people from different walks of life and to working with different teachers, for me, this applies most to living with a host family. Similarly to the first week or so with your random roommate freshman year, you need to take time to get used to each other’s presence and figure out how to best live with each other. Eventually, though, you’ll get into a rhythm and your host family will be one of the best parts of the experience.
2) It’s the little things. You don’t need to have a major breakthrough to feel proud of your progress. Was I excited when I could understand what a conference presenter was saying without the help of the translator? Of course! But I was just as excited (if not more, to be honest) when I successfully asked for and received directions from a local without any language difficulty or when I joked around with the waiter at my favorite café when they kept running out of the things I wanted. Major steps should be celebrated, but the baby steps that got you there shouldn’t be forgotten, either.
3)When learning a language, you are going to make a LOT of mistakes – some of them quite embarrassing – and that’s okay. Many have the mindset that learning a language is going to be like playing solitaire: learn the rules once, practice them a few times, and you’re good to go. In reality, it’s more like poker. There are so many nit-picky rules and nuances that you find annoying at first and then realize how necessary they are – especially if you don’t want to accidentally say something vulgar when really all you need is a straw. Frustration is inevitable, but you have the choice to either let it discourage you or let it be your fire to keep going. Choose wisely.
4) Culture is much more than what you will read about in textbooks or online articles or cultural awareness packets. Are these sources helpful? Absolutely, but there’s nothing like being immersed in the culture and learning how it truly functions. It’s not just about the food, the dress, and the religion. It’s about family dynamics, social expectations, and the personality of the people. In my opinion, observing the culture isn’t enough, and simply living with people of the culture is not the same as immersing yourself. Want to know what being a part of the culture is like? Get involved! It’s more fun, and you learn more than you would otherwise.
5) The world is a complicated place. When you travel and live in a country so unlike your own, you realize that everything one country does affects another and that no decision is ever truly the right one. Learning about the relations between Guatemala and the United States definitely caused some personal cognitive dissonance, but it also helped me turn a more critical eye toward international politics and relations. I feel that with this experience I have been able to open my mind to alternative ideas and expand my understanding of the complicated issues that people of different countries, cultures, and walks of life face on a daily basis.
Sitting in the airplane waiting to take off in Guatemala City, I was torn between wanting to return to the comforts of home and wanting to remain in the country that had now become a home. Of course, there were ups and downs throughout the six weeks, but I wouldn’t have traded this experience for anything.
Well, all that can be said now is – Hasta pronto, Guatemala! (See you soon, Guatemala!)
Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:
I feel very fortunate to have had this opportunity to travel to a foreign nation solely to learn a new language and to experience a new culture. I was constantly learning simply by sharing experiences with locals and students alike. I enjoyed the fact that the program was more personal (one on one tutoring, school-wide activities and events, open and accepting atmosphere) and that lessons were not simply filled with grammar drills and vocabulary memorization. I learned about historical events that now affect present situations and how we, the United States, have involved ourselves in such events and situations. My instructors opened up their lives to and shared their opinions with me so that I could become more than just another Spanish student – with their help and with the open acceptance of almost every person with whom I came into contact, I felt like a part of the community. I’ve remained in contact with several friends from this adventure, and I know that I have gained much more than proficiency in a language.
Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:
Needless to say, I learned more in six weeks than I could have imagined in terms of both language and culture. My language improvements occurred gradually, and I sometimes found myself stuck in a rut, but I was able to overcome these challenges and frustrations with hard work and excellent instruction. My confidence in my writing and conversation skills has skyrocketed, and I can’t wait to continue to improve in the coming semesters and years.
Culturally, Guatemala was a completely different world. Through living with host families and taking part in discussions with my instructors, I was able to experience Guatemala not as a tourist, but as a student and as a member of the community. I made mistakes, learned from them, and worked with other students to navigate some of the more complicated aspects of the culture. Without a doubt, I have gained a new and more personal appreciation for Guatemalan culture specifically and Latin American culture in general. I hope to build on this appreciation and help others discover the wonders of these cultures for themselves.
How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:
First and foremost, I plan to continue to learn and grow through Spanish classes and other experiences here at Notre Dame. However, I strongly believe that I will be able to call upon the skills and experiences I gained thus far in whatever I choose to pursue. In the immediate future, I plan to use my language skills while working with JIFFI to aid the Spanish-speaking clients with whom we already work and connect with more members of the Latino community in South Bend who we can help. Later on, I hope to use these skills and experiences to reach out to and be a resource for Spanish speakers in various difficult situations, whether the situation is psychological, economic, or personal. Simply put, I hope to use my language and intercultural competences to make a tangible difference in the lives of others.