‘CAN… I… GET… A… TEA… POR FAVOR?’
The petite Bolivian waitress’s eyes momentarily glaze over. The nice (but loud) American guy with the MacBook Air clasped firmly under one arm lets his words hang in the air, palpably awkward and drawing gazes from across the small cafe in the remote jungle town of Rurrenabaque.
He got his tea in the end. Don’t worry.
Hey, don’t get me wrong, I’m the first to understand how incredibly difficult it is to travel to a new country and grasp the language. In the first two months, I found it damn near impossible. This seems an opportune moment to recall my proud first order of a coffee and ham and cheese sandwich at EZE airport in Buenos Aires. After sitting down for five minutes, inwardly beaming at my first, successful attempt to speak Spanish, a confused waitress subsequently appeared with two coffees.
That’s not why I’m writing this post though. I’m writing this to let you know how awesome it is when you finally get it: chatting with taxi drivers, sharing a simple joke with locals in the street, flirting with the middle-aged Peruvian at the bus counter (despite her spandex) to secure a 5 Soles discount on my ticket. It’s all possible, you just need to be willing to do a few things:
- Make mistakes. You know when a second-language English speaker says to us: ‘Yesterday I go to the shops and I buyed a bread’, we get it right? They get us too. Don’t be afraid to open your mouth and be corrected, that’s one of the fastest ways I learned.
- Try your butt off. You have no idea how much it is appreciated when we make a simple effort to communicate in the local language. More times than not, my bad Spanish leads to a good-natured laugh. Learn the simple phrases like ‘Can I have’ and, ‘Do you have’ and make up for the items by pointing at them until you learn their names.
- Consider lessons, at home or when you arrive. My Monday night lessons with Jacqui at Spanish Classes Ballarat were as social as they were informative. You’ll also probably meet people with similar travel plans. I did!
I want to stress that I’m not getting on my I’m-travelling-for-one-year high horse here and saying I expect everyone to be fluent or even close to it. Of course people taking a shorter trip have different priorities, I understand that entirely. I’m just urging you to give it a crack! Learning even just a little lingo will open doors to travel experiences that would otherwise remain firmly closed.
[Featured photo: woodleywonderworks, Flickr. Title photo credit: Erika Hall, Flickr]
Gracias Teddy. I was recently in China, and although we had a guide who spoke English, and spoke English to a number of people who had an excllent grasp of the language, there certainly was a missing link. To truely experience a country, its people and culture, language is the key. As you mention, it’s not about being able to order in a restaurant, it is the day to day interactions with the locals, understanding the lyrics of the songs blaring in the bus, reading the political propaganda on the side of the road, and of course, getting that 5 soles discount on your counterfeit shoes.
Now, get out there and learn some of the indigenous languages, campaign on your educational blog about the importance of kids learning languages (and I mean properly learning them, not just once a week for an hour) and get ready to teach a class based around ‘pick up lines en español’ if and when you return.
¡Cuidate mucho y sigue tus aventuras!
I’ve triend my best with Quechua but the only word I’ve learned is Sikisapa, which means ‘Fat bum!’
I’ll certainly be more passionate about languages and education when I return!
couldn’t agree with you more. after taking spanish courses in guatemala, i felt so many more doors open up. being able to converse in the local language is essential for having a much more meaningful travel experience!
Always, Steve! Of course a few beers always helps…
I totally agree about speaking the language! Very important personally and relationship building-wise!
I love your blog, and adventures! so much so that ….
I’ve nominated you for a Liebster Award! Details below and congrats!!
AurumEve.com ~ Global Jewelry
Sharing this link again for the latest group of Spanish students!
No worries, Jacqui! Thanks for the publicity!