Thursday, April 5, 2012

No comprende

I started a Spanish class this week. My 4-year-old son is learning Spanish, and I thought it might be useful to have some idea what he's saying. And it will come in handy when we go to Costa Rica this summer.

There's also the fact that French and German (my other foreign languages) just aren't commonly encountered here in the U.S., but Spanish is everywhere. I think it's important to have at least a grasp of basic words and phrases, and some understanding of other cultures. Yes, the official language here is English, but Spanish--and Spanish-speaking immigrants--are here to stay. It will make life easier for everyone if we all make at least a small effort to understand each other.

It's also humbling to put yourself in the shoes of a person who doesn't speak the local language well. It reminds you that just because they don't speak well doesn't mean they're stupid (which I think a lot of people tend to believe). Far from it. It simply means they don't speak it well, or aren't comfortable doing so.

How do I know? I spent five years as the person who didn't speak the native language. I am an articulate person (when I've had my morning coffee), a well-educated person (I didn't spend six years in graduate school for nothin'). But for the first several years we lived in Germany, I dreaded having to talk to anyone in--gasp--German.

Why? Because every time I had to talk to someone about something, one of several things would happen. Early on, my brain would go into its default foreign language mode (French), and I would say some bizarre combination of French and German (once with a little Italian thrown in--don't ask me where that came from). The person to whom I was speaking would look at me like I was an idiot, then automatically switch to English.

As I learned more German, I would carefully figure out how to properly say something, so I knew the other person would understand. I knew I'd come a long way when he/she would respond in German. But then I was stuck, either unable to understand what they had said or unable to figure out how to respond. After a few moments of struggling, the other person would switch to English.

After several years, my level of comprehension improved greatly, but there still wasn't that natural response just forming in my mind. I still wasn't thinking in German, which meant that I had to translate what they had said into English, then translate my English response into German. This process takes time--a few minutes if you want to get all your verbs and modifiers in the right places--and by then I was usually getting one of those looks that made it clear the person thought I was an idiot. And then they would switch to English. Or, if the person didn't speak English, they would wave me off.

It is incredibly humbling to be treated like an idiot when, in fact, you know you are not (usually).

We take communication for granted, particularly here in the United States, where we expect everyone to speak English. Very few people here make the effort to learn another language, unless it is required for school. And I am the first to admit, it is extremely difficult to learn another language when you have no chance to practice using it. The U.S. is a huge country. When you drive from one state to the next, the language stays the same. It's not like Europe, where you go from one country another and change languages. To be like that here, almost every state would need to speak a different language. We just don't have that incentive to learn.

Unfortunately, our lack of willingness to learn another language is viewed negatively by other nations. They resent that we come to their countries and expect them to speak our language. Rightfully so. We expect people coming here to speak English, so we should do them the same courtesy of making an attempt to speak their language. And really, the effort goes a long way.

So now I'm speaking some bizarre combination of German, French, and Spanish (Gernchish? Fremanish? Spamanch?). People will look at me like I'm an idiot when we go to Costa Rica, I'm sure. But I'll get a few words and phrases right, I'll make the effort. And that goes a very long way.

Adiós mes amies. Ich wünchen Ihnen un buenos dias.

What experiences have you had with foreign languages (whether you speak or others were speaking to you)?


  1. My passion is Spanish. I've loved it ever since 4th grade. My teacher had visited Brazil before. She didn't teach us Spanish, but I truly loved the language and always found it fascinating. I'll be glad to practice with you. I'm like you though. I'd probably translate two or three times just to keep the conversation going. I also don't know much vocabulary. I wish I knew more. I wish I had the chance to practice it more. I get nervous when trying to speak it. Hope you have a lot of fun in the class, and even more fun in Costa Rica!

    1. I wish learning it was easy! I watch my children learn new languages, and they just absorb them like sponges. I, on the other hand, must really work at it. But I am determined to gain at least a basic understanding of Spanish.

  2. Having travelled to France recently, we tried to make an effort to speak French (as much as knew, as many words are familiar, but not the grammar. In Canada, we have two official languages but many distinct cultures.)

    Almost every time, the French waiter or salesclerk would make the effort to understand us, if we made the effort to try to speak their language. We met some delightful people that way.

    A great post, enjoyed reading it!

  3. Thanks, D.G.! My first attempt at using a foreign language was in France. I think my French was quite amusing to the people there, but they definitely appreciated the effort!

  4. Great post! I had a similar experience when I went to Korea and defaulted into Spanish. I was also apparently ordering the elder Korean teachers around in the condescending informal tone for the first month or so. But an incorrect effort is always more appreciated than no attempt!

    Since you've already learned two languages, I'm sure you'll pick up Spanish really quickly. Good luck :)