Say What? Overcoming Language Differences…
You know what I’m saying?
Sometimes understanding is difficult to achieve. I have been in situations where I have had to or wanted to make myself clear. Conversations that come to mind are often hilarious, although at the time miscommunication was not one bit funny…but frustrating, or even frightening.
I can read Spanish, but speaking it is very difficult for me. I still translate the words from English before writing or speaking in Spanish. The first language other than English that I learned was when I was in my twenties, trying to teach myself German before I went to Germany to live. I bought a copy of Berlitz German, and proceeded to study and write sentences. I will say that I learned some rudimentary proununciation and grammar rules, the vocabulary words were harder.
The first Germans that I met were in the railway station, and on the train taking me from the port at Bremerhaven, to Frankfurt, where my army husband met me at the station on Christmas Day,1955. When I got on the train, to my small compartment, which had a tiny washroom in it, I prudently barricaded the door with my assorted baggage…When the train reached my destination stop, the conductor opened the door…outward. So much for closed doors.
We moved into a brand new apartment in U.S. Army quarters, where our neighbors in the building were all U.S. soldiers. But then almost everyone we met spoke English…so my German sort of languished.
Strange as it seems, the first foreign language that emerges from my brain is, to this day, German…which doesn’t help much in countries where Spanish is called for.
I did have some not-so-funny at the time but humorous adventures. The one that comes to mind as both amusing and embarrassing was when I hired a taxi to drive me up a giant mountain to the city that was my destination. I was able to figure out that the taxi fare would be the equivalent of US$20, so I knew that I could pay the driver in twenties…which was all I had at the time. I did not have any Mexican Pesos, only US dollars…which contrary to popular belief, are not always welcome.
On the hour and a half trip up the mountain, I tried to chit-chat a bit with the driver. He was a young man, and was about as conversant in English as I was in Spanish. He asked me if I had any candy, but I thought he was talking about a kiss. So idiot that I am, I got worried…it was highly unlikely that this good looking young guy would be making a pass at an old lady…but well, ya never know.
By the time we got to the city I had something new to worry about…the $20 bills. I think the driver was wondering if I knew where we were going, as it was dark, and I had forgotten the name of the street where the hotel that I was headed for was located. (duh…) But he followed my directions: right, left, left, right, etc. and we stopped in front of the hotel. The owner answered the bell, and responded.
I explained in Spanish that all I had was 20 dollar bills…and that I intended to pay the driver for the fare, plus give him another twenty for his work…..which was a lot of money in pesos. The hotel owner understood me…and convinced the driver that the company would be pleased with the US dollars, and that he would be able to convert his twenty. Meanwhile I was holding my breath…I had no desire to meet the local policia … but all was well. I got to my room and slept like a baby.
That issue about the candy was just ignorance on my part.
On the trip down that mountain, two weeks later, I was as usual…car sick. I hoped to make it to the airport, but ….. Not knowing the words…. I just reached over to the taxi driver and tapped his arm…he glanced at me…and had no trouble understanding my “senor…” and my impromptu upchuck-gesture, which needed no words, and he pulled over to the side of the road to let me out.
During the two weeks I was there I did not meet any English-speakers, but it was possible to get by with my rudimentary Spanish. Part of the issue there was that outside of town officials and shopkeepers, most of the people around did not themselves speak Spanish, let alone English…but an indigenous language.