Learning to communicate

Foreign languages have never seemed all that “foreign” to me, fortunately, at least in the sense of the desire to learn them. In the Peace Corps in South America I learned Spanish in the total immersion sink-or-swim method of living with a family of 12 who spoke no English. Language classes in the day were followed by interaction, meager at first, with the family at night. I still remember that moment at dinner one evening when I realized that I could understand some of what they were saying and asked to be included. From then on I was truly a part of the family.

One of the first big trips that Bill and I took together was to Cologne, Germany to attend language school there, again in a total immersion situation. We even agreed to speak only German to each other which lasted about two days. Since we were in class with students from many different countries, the one common language between all of us was English, so we didn’t get all that much practice with our classmates outside of school. Despite that, we somehow became proficient enough that one evening in a bar, we asked the gentleman who was attempting to speak English to us to please switch back to his native German since that was much easier for us to understand. In hindsight that might have been rude, or it could have been the influence of that delicious Kolsch beer, but at least we continued to communicate through the evening.

When I was working, I often encountered deaf people which was incentive enough for me to take American Sign language classes and become proficient enough to teach some of my coworkers. Although I was certainly not fluent, it was a joy to see the surprise and delight on the faces of people who could not hear me but knew that I could understand what they wanted to say.

We have friends from southern England who moved last year to Portugal to enjoy the warmth and sunshine. I’ve just begun learning Portuguese to fulfill a promise that Bill and I made to each other many years ago during a trip to Italy: we would not visit a country unless we knew at least the basics of their language. Our train was hours late in arriving at a small Italian station where our friends were going to meet us but had been sent home by the station personnel. Not wanting to trouble them further, we got into a taxi, gave the driver what we thought was their home address, and off we went. We zoomed around the countryside, the taxi meter ticking away in thousands of lire, the driver shouting to anyone he passed in search of this address that apparently did not exist. In desperation he took us to the nearest town where he obviously knew that there were other English speakers. Sure enough, when we stepped out of the cab in front of a bar, we both gave a sigh of relief when we heard a cheerful woman’s British accent: “the boys are here”!

Through all of these different languages, neither one of us has ever become what we would consider fluent. What we have become is conversant. A language teacher that I like a lot named Michel Thomas says that it’s like playing tennis. You attempt to hit the ball over the net and if you do, the person on the other side will hit it back to you with their reply indicating that they’ve understood what you just said. If you get a blank look you’ll know that you’ve hit the net and you need to repeat the sentence or change the words or accent to get your idea across. It seems to me that the most important point of all this interaction is communication.