Communicating with the deaf in a language I don’t know much of

7 Things You’ll Learn About Yourself by Moving Abroad reminded me of my experience in Antigua, Guatemala, although I didn’t move there.

I spent three weeks in Guatemala—10 days in San Pedro la Laguna, the other 10 days in Antigua—during the winter vacation of 2009-2010 to study Spanish. I enrolled to Spanish language schools there, and did homestay with local families. In Antigua, I was living with a big family whose three generations live under the same roof. And two of the family members were deaf: Maria, a patissier, and Freddy, a painter.

Rest of the family members were busy with their own businesses and I was always left with the two. Precisely, Maria was the one who was assigned to prepare my meals, and we three almost always had dinner together, a few times with their parents. Maria and Freddy could hear with a hearing aid, not clearly though. Most of the time, they read my lips. And along with the sign language, they could convey their thoughts in voice, again not clearly.

Until then, I hadn’t had a chance to communicate with the deaf. But now, I got to live  with two for 10 days. Although my basic Spanish that I had learned at college almost 10 years before was coming back as I spent 10 days in San Pedro before Antigua, my Spanish wasn’t any good. I really didn’t know what to do, or how to communicate with them who only understand Spanish that I’m not good at, when the communication itself can be a challenge.

At first, it was difficult to understand what they’re trying to say. But as I got used to the way they say, I realized the fact that they have troubles in talking and hearing didn’t really matter. Our communication difficulties weren’t any bigger than those from the simple language barrier, like the one I had with the local family I lived with in San Pedro. Probably it was smaller, as I became paying more attention to the people who I was talking with. And I was still learning new words from them.

One day I asked her about what she made the soup with. “Zanahoria,” she said. I made my face puzzled, asking what zanahoria means. She made hand gestures of rabbit ears, saying something. Frankly, I wouldn’t have understood her even if she was a perfect talker. So, I took it as rabbit, and thought she put rabbit meat in the soup. “Que?! Rabbit?!” I jumped out of the chair, with my eyes wide open. She laughed out loud, waiving her hands. She almost fell to the ground, laughing. Then she acted as if she was eating something, saying conejo something. Ah, the thing that rabbit eats! Carrot! Finally! Since she has called me conejo.

At another time, she told me that there was a Korean boy in town when she was young. He was handsome and she liked him. She got lost contacts with him and missed him, she said. I couldn’t bring him back to her, but I could at least take her to a Korean restaurant instead. So, one of my last days in Antigua, we went to the only Korean restaurant in town, with Freddy. I ordered sundubu jjigae, bibimbap, and spicy pork bbq, and explained them the food, in Spanish, in all available ways, including drawing. And they seemed to have understood what I was saying.

After the meal, we walked around the city, and they decided to be my tour guide. They showed me around the church where Freddy’s paintings are hung, and an old castle now used as a museum. They tried to tell me as much as they could, and I tried to learn as much as I could.

Certainly, “communication is much more than just the words we say” and beyond the speaking/hearing ability.


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