I don’t understand. I don’t speak Quechua. No snazzy online translator available either.
“Dé-ne,” the old man says, pointing at the horizon emphatically. We’ve been orbiting Déne for the last ten minutes. I understand not a word of his Quechua and it’s not clear if my Spanish has any impact either. At least I assume it’s Quechua- it could be slurred Spanish because I know the clear liquid in his plastic Coke bottle isn’t water.
Here I’ve learned two things: there is something out there called Déne—which could be anything from an Incan God to hemorrhoids—and that alcohol overcomes language barriers. With a guide or translator perhaps I could have learned something more profound, but I wouldn’t have it any other way—I relish these experiences of linguistic confusion.
As a native speaker of English, the international tongue of commerce and culture—in other words, the language that everyone wants to practice on me or use to sell me something while abroad—I sometimes feel there is a great deal of momentum against me absorbing foreign languages. It is for this that I embrace moments like now, when I find someone loquacious with the patience to explain in-depth, knowing that I understand not a word but still treats me as if I do. If I spent enough time here sharing bottlecaps of cañazo I know that I would eventually pick up Quechua, or at least be able to slur my Spanish like a pro.
I would learn what Déne is.
This is how our moms and dads taught us to speak as infants: by overlooking our sheer obliviousness.
With enough time, each of us has the innate ability learn any language we are immersed in. We can’t avoid it unless we try, or we let the world get in our way.