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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

¿Hablas español?

¿Hablas español?

I haven’t traveled to many countries in my life and most of those I have visited I speak at least a bit of the language. This is no coincidence as I don’t feel comfortable visiting places where I don’t speak any of the local language. I just feel stupid speaking English when I’m away from home. Now that my Spanish has greatly improved I think I would get along just fine in Italy, Romania, Portugal, and Brazil simply because Portuguese, Rumanian, and Italian are so similar to Spanish. I know that my phobia about foreign languages is a bit irrational and I shouldn’t let it keep me from seeing more of the world but it does. I don’t feel too claustrophobic as I can get by in Spanish, French, Arabic, and Greek. I’m certainly not bragging about this as my speaking ability in all but Spanish is pretty crappy but, as I said, I can get by.

I would say that a lot of Americans speak a lot more Spanish than they give themselves credit for knowing. Simple things like buenos días, buenas tardes, gracias, por favor, tacos, burritos, and being able to count are not such simple things if you have ever traveled to a country where you aren’t familiar with this absolutely essential vocabulary. A lot of people at this level probably think that their ability in Spanish isn’t worth mentioning. I would beg to differ. How many Americans know what cerveza means? If you can order a beer in the native language you are off to a great start in any country.

If I had this much of a base in Chinese, or Russian, or some other strange language I would be positively fearless about traveling to those lands. If you have taken even one high school Spanish class you would probably be amazed at how well you can get along in Spain or any other Spanish-speaking country. Just study up a bit before you take a trip and I guarantee that you will be quite pleased with your ability to effect any number of transactions in Spanish. I also guarantee that people won’t make fun of you. No matter what your level, people are always very grateful when someone even attempts to speak their language. I have spoken French with people in France who I know speak perfect English and they always allow me to struggle through in their language. I am very hard-headed in that I insist on speaking the language of the host country.

When you tell someone that you have studied a language invariably the first question they ask you is, “Are you fluent?” After studying any language for any length of time you realize that “fluent” has little concrete meaning. By fluent do they mean that you can order food in a restaurant, book a hotel, or offer greetings and thanks? If this is the case, then all of those Americans I mentioned before with a basic grasp of Spanish are fluent. For me “fluent” doesn’t have much meaning. I am more interested in just being able to function in another language—at least at first. Even being functional has a lot of room for interpretation. Learning another language isn’t like memorizing all of the State capitals; it is a huge task that can take a lifetime. There are plenty of rewards along the way and everyone gets a prize for trying. On one trip to Amsterdam I learned how to order a bottle of beer. It took me a while to memorize it because I got the phrase out of a guide book and I wasn’t at all sure about the pronunciation. I sat down at a café and blurted out my few words of Dutch to the waiter. He simply nodded and turned away. I don’t think that I have ever been more pleased with my accomplishments in the study of languages than when he came back with what I ordered. I felt like I had just brokered a peace between the Palestinians and Israelis in Arabic and Hebrew. You have to savor the little victories in life. Worry about Middle East peace later.