Some people have talent with languages. I am not one of them.
Traveling around Southeast Asia, from country to country, it is all I can do to produce a passable ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in the native tongue. At the height of my abilities, I can understand a few numbers and can answer a question about my age in Thai or Khymer. The tiny part of my brain which stores the new glossary is overwritten whenever I cross borders.
In 2010 I went from Thailand to Cambodia to Laos to Vietnam. Lao and Thai are similar enough that I could make that transition, but by the time I reached Vietnam I was done. Even this most basic mastery eluded me.
While traveling, two things get me by well enough. For one, English is the language which is common to travelers. Wherever one goes, it is the one language which will likely be understood at some minimal, functional level. The taxi driver will know the relevant vocabulary – where one wants to go, what the fare should be. The hotel clerk will be able to answer basic questions. In more remote places, there will usually be someone one encounters on the street, or on the bus, who will have enough words to assist.
The other ‘getting by’ skill is charades. This can be a fun game as it tends to build a connection with the people one meets. While it doesn’t compensate completely for the questions one cannot ask or answer, it is all part of the adventure and the challenge.
In Hanoi, Vietnam, I had a taxi driver who simply could not understand when I asked to be taken to one of the main landmarks, St Joseph’s Cathedral. I had caught this ride well outside of the main tourist areas where I would not have had this kind of difficulty. Possibly my accent was unintelligible to him, or possibly his English was simply on par with my Vietnamese. I tried all kinds of words. The simplest – ‘church’ – communicated nothing at all useful. Finally I held up two fingers in the form of a cross, then did the Catholic ‘crossing oneself’ gestures. The comprehension was instantaneous and off we went, both full of smiles.
This kind of bond, which develops when communication is limited and difficult, builds some of my most treasured memories while traveling. Something profound about the commonality of the human spirit is tapped into. As different as our lives and opportunities might be, my experience is that there is so much more where we are truly the same. It is this fundamental human connection which I most value while traveling.
For a couple of days in Laos I traveled with Gwen, a brilliant young lady who was literally a language genius. As a Canadian she was raised with both English and French and had also learned German at some point. A year as an exchange student in northeastern Thailand had added both Thai and a bit of Lao and she was off next to work a couple of months in Cambodia so would likely soon be communicating in Khymer. I also have some foggy notion that she was studying Chinese and perhaps Russian. Gwen was the antithesis of language-challenged me.
Strangely enough, as much as I enjoyed her youthful, enthusiastic company, having her smooth the way was a sort of mixed blessing. It was tremendously entertaining, and edifying, when she would quietly translate the things that people thought she and I would not be able to understand. But it also made things too easy and separated me from the usual connections I would manage to make by bumbling about in my own innocent, ignorant way.
I admire, and envy, those who pick up new vocabularies easily. I think this is partly an innate ability, but also one which is enhanced by early learning. Children who grow up in multilingual homes, or countries, have an immediate advantage as the parts of their brains which adapt to this demand seem to develop more completely.
Since I was exposed only to American English in my very early childhood, I did not have this particular advantage. Still, this really does not explain just how resistant my brain is to new languages for I have had enough early exposure for things to be different. From five years old to eleven, French was part of my school curriculum. And from twelve to seventeen, there were daily lessons in Spanish. One would think this would all have stuck with me. Is it in there somewhere? There was a time when I could converse easily in Spanish, and could even write smoothly and well in the language. Where has it all gone?
Enter Guatemala. Language lessons there are inexpensive. As an adjunct to the lessons, one can elect a homestay where the host family is under orders to use only Spanish. Somewhere in my old brain is that long neglected knowledge, I am sure of it. What fun it would be to see it all come into the daylight again.
Central America. What an adventure that could be. Guatemala shares borders with Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico. I can feel my Spanish accent returning.