You Say Cerrado, I Say Fechado: Learning Languages on the Road, Kinda

travel signs
Signs, signs, everywhere are signs…

After telling a friend I’d be calling Buenos Aires home for 2 months this year, I mentioned my fear that my sub-par Spanish language skills would make life overseas difficult.

She replied that she knew a woman who had been living in B.A. for a year. “And she doesn’t speak a lick of Spanish, so don’t worry,” my friend said.

Er, what? Cue needled scratching across record. You’d move to a Spanish-speaking country and not at least TRY to learn the language? (Sputtering ensues) B-b-b-ut why even bother to go there, then?

I mean, I get the whole not already speaking the language part. But not trying to learn it once you’re living in the culture? That seems, shall we say … insulting.

I’ve been in South America nearly 4 months and I swear to you, it still chaps my ass when I’m in a restaurant and hear English speakers address the staff in English without even trying to utter a simple, “Habla Ingles?,” “Por favor,” or “Gracias.”

Pretty much everyone knows those wee drops of Spanish or can learn them on the fly. Even if you feel awkward speaking when those seemingly childish phrases are the only things you know or understand, just remember that every little attempt you make helps, and every little word you try speak in a country’s native tongue is a sign of respect to the new culture you’ve traveled to experience.

Even if your communication quickly devolves into English, at least you made the attempt and you’re trying to grow and learn. Which, I’d say, is a huge part of why we travel.

How do you juggle the new languages you’ll encounter on the road if you don’t speak a lick of any of them?

travel sign
Lost in translation, I suppose?

You probably won’t gain fluency in a short amount of time — though some argue it’s possible — but you can learn the basics, and get pretty darn far communicating, in my experience.

Of course, on this particular trip, I’ve had to regain minor fluency in Spanish while in Argentina, then learn Portuguese from scratch in Brazil, only to return to Spanish in Peru.

Chaos has ensued, trust. I’m suddenly thinking in 3 different languages, 2 of which are remarkably similar but very different. “Closed” is either cerrado or fechado, “good day” is buenos dias or bom gia, “bread” is pao or pan. And on and on.

My personal language strategy on the road involves learning the absolute basic phrases you’ll need to get by in your new destination. For me, that includes the following:

  • Hello
  • Goodbye
  • Please
  • Thank you
  • I would like …
  • The check, please
  • I am (we are) going to …
  • Where’s the bathroom?
  • Numbers from 1 to 10
  • Do you speak English?
  • I speak a little Spanish/Portuguese/etc.

On a totally personal note, I make it a point to learn all kinds of words for local foods, generally because I eat my face off everywhere I travel.

Anyway, once you’ve got the basics down, you’ll be amazed how many simple communications you can successfully attempt.

Regardless, almost as instinct, when speaking a language I barely know, I apologize to whomever I’m speaking with — alerting them that I only speak or understand a little bit of their language.

This softens the blow when your counterpart starts speaking really fast, or says something that you can’t decipher.

And yes, at some point you will inevitably do something very embarrassing, like realizing you smiled excitedly and clapped your hands a bit when someone told you their relative died. Oops.

Just own it.

Because when you do make the attempt to talk in a new-to-you language, and you’ve successfully communicated your wants or needs, it’s a total rush.

You’ll be all, “BOOYAH! Look at me, masterin’ languages like a boss!”

It happened recently on Porto de Galinhas beach in Brazil. Ayaz and I had spent our afternoon at a restaurant on the sand, ordering food and having occasional small talk with our waiter — in Portuguese.

I had perfunctorily apologized at one point, when I had no freaking clue what he had asked me. Something about hot sauce, perhaps? He just smiled, sympathetically.

Later, as I was leaving the beach, without thinking much of it, I ran back to him with a quick question, “Is that building a hotel or apartments?” I asked, in Portuguese. He replied that it was apartments, and asked where I was from. “Estados Unidos,” I told him.

“You do understand! You do speak Portuguese!” he said, laughing. And I realized, he was right.


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