Entiendo Un Poco

14 Jan 2007

Each time I start to learn another language - now three in four months - I worry that I'll end up so confused that I won't be able to speak anything.

It doesn't seem to happen that way. Searching for a word in Spanish, sometimes the French, Malay or Thai word pops into my head, but always accompanying it is the knowledge that it's in the wrong language and it's not going to help.

Rather than mixing up words, it seems that the human brain mixes up whole sentences. More than once we've been addressed at length in Spanish by our Australian friends.

I can see how it happens. At one cafe, faced with my limited Spanish, the waiter came up with another solution: "Francaise?"

It wasn't likely to help, and I didn't want to confuse matters, so I said "I speak only English."

He gave me a long look, and it wasn't until much later that I realized why.

I'd said it in French.

Among barmen, bus drivers, pharmacists, and other tourist staples, English here is nonexistent. The students are a different matter, switching effortlessly between Czech, Finnish, Spanish and English that, though they describe it as "horrible", is usually quite fluent.

One thing that doesn't change across languages is that I can transmit, but can't receive[2]. I've had several conversations, conducted entirely in Spanish, that go along the lines of "Good morning. Two black coffees and two potato omelettes, please." "Do you want bread?" "I don't speak Spanish."

I don't mind. Five hours listening to Pimsleur tapes and a small phrasebook is enough to get by, with some hand-waving and the odd bilingual good samaritan. And it's fun - even a mundane task like buying a sandwich becomes an exciting adventure, complete with the satisfaction that comes with a job well done.

Piecing together bits of overheard conversations becomes an involving mystery. Deducing that the guy on the next table thinks it's hotter than last year is like pointing the finger at the Butler, in the Library, with the Steak Knife[1].

With McDonald's on every corner in every country, the language is one thing that can be counted on to remain alien, and therefore interesting. Eventually the language barrier becomes not an impediment to travel, but a reason to.

fn1. I'm not quite at that point yet; interpreting a long string of Spanish for Lyn, I was forced to admit, "I only got one word. And it was 'is'."

fn2. This is because, when speaking, I have time on my side. I spend several minutes looking up, memorising, and practicing the words that I know I'll need before each encounter. This gives me the illusion of fluency, which invariably means that I get an answer I can't understand.