Early on in my recent trip to Mexico, I was having dinner with a small group at a restaurant in Guadalajara. When the meal was finished, the woman who was charged to leading us back to our bus spoke Spanish and French, but no English. She also wasn’t familiar with the area we were in, and didn’t know where our bus was, exactly, making it a mystery about why she was leading us in the first place, but there wasn’t really time to contemplate that, because I was the only one among us who was able to communicate with her, using a language that I call Spench.
Spench, of course, is a blend of Spanish and French, borne out of a cheerful mix of second language education: I was in a bilingual French program in the first and second grade, took Spanish for the balance of elementary school, French through high school, Spanish in college. Of all of my formal second language education, I’d say the first experience and the last made the most impact. The last, because I studied Spanish intensively in college and graduated with the ability think in Spanish – short-lived, it turned out, since I used it not at all and it faded from my conscious mind. And the first, because some essential neurological wiring happened in my brain during those early years. If I’m relaxed, I can understand French with a startling amount of clarity.
In recent years, my French has been stronger than my Spanish. I’m just exposed to it more often, my husband speaks French to his father and I participate in their conversations too – but I speak my parts in English. I have trouble managing a social interaction while conjuring up French sentences, especially since I have to double-check that I’m not inserting Spanish words into the mix.
But in the situation of needing to find the bus, my guide and I were able to agree that it didn’t matter at all. She spoke to me in French and I responded using whatever word I was able to grab at, no matter what the language. (Which led to such linguistic atrocities on my part as “un rue muy grande”.) But we found the bus.
It’s sad, I think, that English speakers usually don’t have to struggle with language when we travel. True, you can almost always find someone who will speak to you in English. Of course this is part of what contributes to the bad reputation of American tourists, blithely assuming that everyone speaks our language. It doesn’t just hurt our reputation though, it limits our experience: sticking to English alone makes it harder to penetrate a place, to go outside the tourist track. Which makes everything less interesting.
With the amount I travel, it’s impractical for me to learn the language of every country I visit, although I do consider it basic decent manners to be able to say a few words in the language. If nothing else, I want to know how to say “thank you”, because I’ve found that thanking people, in combination with smiling, and a method that a good friend of mine calls “hooting and pointing” – hand gestures — you can get through a number of situations. (Or you can make a laughing stock of yourself. During my recent trip to Shanghai, I noticed that my earnest attempts to thank people tended to be greeted with giggles. Once I got home and ran it past a Chinese friend, who also laughed helplessly. Oh, God, what did I say? It’s xie xie, right? Right, but I was pronouncing it like shǐ shǐ, when I should have been saying something more like tsyeh-tsyeh. Instead of saying thank you, I using a child’s word for shit. Whoops.)
At this moment, though, my Spanish is stronger than my French, because I ended up using it a lot during the rest of my time in Mexico. Spanish phrases and words came back to me like words floating up out of a deep, dark cave. (Not the kind that has bears, the kind of cave that looks like a hole in the ground that spelunkers like to squeeze into.) I supplemented these memories with my Rough Guide phrasebook for when I needed to remind myself of something. I had that book in my hands at least once an hour, looking up phrases and repeating them to myself, over and over again. In the science of second language acquisition, this is called the “silent phase”, where you’re listening and learning and repeating language to yourself over and over again without speaking.
I’m not sure what the scientific explanation of this is, but sometimes words would go haywire when they journeyed from my memory cave. In Mexico City, I wanted to tell the cab driver that we were at our hotel. “Pare aqui, por favor,” I said. (Stop here, please.) And then: “Este mueble.” (“This furniture.” What? I meant to say, “this building.”) Sometimes, nothing would come up at all. I was in San Miguel de Allende, about to buy some ice cream from a street vendor. “How do you say, flavor?”, my friend asked. “I don’t know,” I said. A few moments passed. “Sabor,” I said. I didn’t know it and then I knew it.
How did that happen? It’s like there’s some screen in my memory, and forcibly prying the screen back only makes it hold with more tenacity. The only way to remove the screen is to patiently stare at it, for hours, until it becomes opaque and then maybe, after some time, it dissolves.