Should you learn the native language before traveling to a foreign country? This is a question that plagues many travelers. I know many people around the world speak English, so you can get by without knowing a country’s language, but I feel guilty if they have to accommodate me by speaking what is to them a foreign language–in their own country, no less. Think about how often Amerians say (in what is usually a very snotty tone of voice): “If you’re going to come to the US, learn the language.” Shouldn’t it be the same when we travel somewhere else? If there’s one thing I really hate, it’s double standards.
A couple of years ago, I decided to stop saying “I’d like to learn Spanish some day” and actually learn it. I started studying. I’ve got what I think is a pretty good language program involving a workbook and CDs. But I haven’t progressed very far. What’s lacking is daily motivation. I live in Vermont. We don’t have a large Spanish-speaking population here. I don’t have an opportunity to practice in a natural setting. And let’s face it, in this world, the tyranny of the urgent often takes over. Other things take priority and push the Spanish study to the background so that when I start planning a trip to a Spanish-speaking destination, it’s like I have to start all over again from scratch.
After my frustrations with language in Paris, I didn’t have a lot of hope that I would fare better in Spain. I knew more Spanish words and phrases than I had French, but how was my pronunciation? And would I remember what I had learned, or would my mind go blank when I most needed to pull up those phrases? I didn’t know; I’d never had to put it to use.
On the day of my arrival in Madrid, I spoke little Spanish. I didn’t have to. Before I even had a chance to open my mouth, waiters, hotel desk clerks and other service workers took one look at my pale skin and red hair and greeted me in English. At first, it was a relief. Who was I to keep them from practicing their English? I rationalized. By day two, though, I was ready to dip my toes in the Spanish language pool. I mean, this is why I did all that studying, right? At first, the results were a little comical.
Shortly after I arrived in Barcelona, I found a table in a cafe off Placa Catalunya, which is a fairly touristy area. Menu items were in Spanish and English, and it was clear that my waitress spoke some English, but I wanted to try to order in Spanish. I did fine, until I got to my beverage. I asked for a té helado. The waitress frowned at me, a puzzled look on her face.
My confidence wavered. “Té helado?” I repeated. She looked at me like I was speaking with a mouthful of marbles. I must be pronouncing it wrong, I thought.
“Iced tea?” I said, hoping she knew that English phrase. Her face cleared, she nodded and wrote it down. But I wanted to know, for future reference, how to really say it in Spanish. So I asked her:
“Cómo se dice ‘iced tea’ en español?”
She repeated, “Iced tea.”
“Si,” I said. “But how do you say it in Spanish?”
She looked at me like I was crazy, and in perfectly good English replied, “You say iced tea. It’s universal, like Coke or Pepsi.”
Oh. Okay then.
Things turned around at dinner the following evening. I was dining al fresco, enjoying the sultry night air. My oh-so-smooth waiter knew quite a bit of English. After I ordered my food, he asked me what I would like to drink, and for some reason, I decided I wanted wine. I don’t normally like or drink wine, but I wanted to try something local, and I’d already sampled two Spanish beers during previous meals. So I asked him, “Do you have a house wine?”
He cocked his head at me, a question on his face. He didn’t understand.
I hadn’t practiced the phrase at all, nor given it any thought before my trip, but of course, when I put my mind to it, I realized I knew all the words in Spanish to explain it: “Vino de casa?” I said.
He looked embarrassed. “Oh—house wine, of course. Rojo o blanco (red or white)?”
“Blanco,” I replied. He went off to get my wine, and I leaned back in my chair, feeling quite smug. I didn’t like the wine very much, but I drank it all anyway, because dammit, I’d ordered it in Spanish.
It’s the little successes.
My second success came during my long, frustrating search to buy a travel-sized shampoo in Barcelona. I hadn’t brought any with me, and my hostal didn’t provide it. I went to El Corte Ingles, the mega-department/grocery store, certain they would have it. Shockingly, all they had was full-size bottles of shampoo. How could this be? El Corte Ingles has everything! It’s like the freaking Mall of America, only in Spain. As I wandered all over the city that day, I stopped into every pharmacy I ran across, and still, no travel-sized shampoo. It was like the quest for the Holy Grail. How could nobody have travel-sized shampoo in a tourist destination like Barcelona?
Finally, as I was walking along La Rambla, I spotted a little pharmacy and decided to try one last time. If this didn’t work, I was just going to have to suck it up and buy a full-sized bottle. I walked into the store. There was only one other customer browsing. The pharmacist, a stocky man a bit older than me with dark hair buzzed close to his head, looked at me expectantly as I walked in. I smiled and greeted him. “Hola.”
“Hola,” he replied with a smile. “Buenas dias.”
He was one of the first people I’d run across in Spain who didn’t immediately switch to English as soon as they saw me. Which made me think maybe he didn’t speak English. So I broke out my minimal Spanish.
Me: “Yo quiero pagar una pequeña champú, viajo champú.” I thought I was saying “I want to buy a small shampoo, travel shampoo,” but what I was actually saying was “I want to pay a small shampoo, travel shampoo”–and even then, my grammar wasn’t exactly correct. But it didn’t have to be; I got the message across, and I did it all in Spanish. More importantly, he didn’t laugh at me.
Him: “Pequeña champú, si.” He walked around the counter and over to the hair care products. He found a small bottle of shampoo on the shelf and showed it to me. I was elated and bought it.
I was making baby steps in Spanish, but it’s the little successes that build confidence.
In the train station on the way back to Madrid, I started chatting with an American woman and her mother who were traveling around Spain and were coincidentally on the same train as me. There was a delay with our train and lines of people began conversing in Spanish with a staff member. There were no English announcements at Sants, so we had no idea what was going on. That’s when I learned that neither one of them spoke a word of Spanish.
Not a word? They didn’t even learn a single word of Spanish before they went to Spain??? Not even hello, please, or thank you? I was gobsmacked.
We made our way to a staff member to try to get some information about our train. He only spoke a little English, haltingly, and so supplemented what he was saying in Spanish. The two women pulled me forward. “We don’t speak Spanish. But she does.”
I pinched my fingers together. “Un poco. Muy poco.” (A little; very little.)
It’s amazing how suddenly, my limited knowledge of the Spanish language became really important. Luckily, I knew just enough. It sounded like he was telling us the train was leaving from platform two downstairs. In Spanish, I repeated what I thought I heard him say: “Dos? Abajo?”
He looked at me and nodded vigorously. “Si. Dos, abajo.”
I thanked him, and the three of us went downstairs, me leading them right to their train seats—directly behind mine–like a mother duckling. When they got off at Zaragoza, we wished each other well. I felt good knowing I had helped them get to their destination.
If your native language is English, you can sometimes get by in a foreign country without speaking their language. But I’m glad I learned as much Spanish as I did before I went to Spain. Not just because it helped me feel more confident as I was making my way around the country, or even because I was able to help the mother and daughter catch their train to Zaragoza. I’m glad because of the look on the face of the staff member in the train station.
He was looking a little frazzled, surrounded by frustrated travelers, all of them peppering him with questions about why there was a delay and where they needed to go. He obviously didn’t speak enough English to make himself understood to these two women. When he realized I understood him and could translate what he said to the other two women, a look of relief washed across his face. I made his job easier just by learning some of his language before I went to his country. I hadn’t learned a lot, but it was enough.
It’s the little successes that make a difference.