Sunday, June 24, 2007

On Language

All the Americans in our Embassy are trained and tested in Spanish before they are shipped to post. Most of us have what you would probably call "functional" Spanish upon arrival, moving into "proficient" Spanish after a couple years here. Some few colleagues who served in the Peace Corps or grew up speaking Spanish are better-off, but most of us come to a point where we can hold our own.

The Guatemalan employees, who outnumber the Americans by a significant degree, almost all speak fluent English.

It makes for an interesting workplace. I can carry on a pretty fluent conversation in formal Spanish. And I can mostly get by with more colloquial Spanish, guessing slang words or run-together words on context. But in either case, I still have to think about it. Imagine your average cube-farm sort of workplace where you can overhear the conversations of your ten closest neighbors. It's pretty hard to concentrate. And whenever you go by the water cooler, you're going to pick up a little of what everyone's talking about. You can't avoid it, short of covering your ears and yelling "la la la la I can't hear you," because the language you've spoken since you were two drifts by your ears, and you would have to be completely transfixed by something else to not hear what your neighbors are saying. understanding spoken English for me is unconscious, and even if I would rather not be distracted, it takes some effort to stay focused on work if there's another conversation in earshot.

In a mostly-Spanish-speaking environment, the script is reversed entirely. I can walk into our little kitchen where several colleagues are chatting in Spanish and unless I make an active decision to listen to them, it's just as easy to fill up a glass of water and leave, blissfully ignorant of the latest gossip. And when we're all at our little government-cube desks, everyone else in the place can be chattering away and I can maintain constant focus on my work (or my personal e-mail, while we're being honest).

It's definitely a big plus for productivity. Of course, in a managerial sense, one begins to realize how much there is to be learned by just picking up bits of conversation from colleagues. The "management by eavesdropping" strategy is a little harder when the boss has to drop everything and actively listen to the speaker to tell if she's whining about her husband or if she's whining about the boss.

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