Saturday, July 14, 2012

An Experience Worth Working For

     Some things come naturally while others take a much greater degree of investment in time and discipline and energy. Although I have put a lot of work into planning my world travel, that was relatively easy. What was far harder was learning a few languages that I could communicate with in addition to English. Many Americans assume that they can get by speaking English wherever they travel and English probably is closest of all to a universal tongue. But they must evaluate what "get by" means. If you want to know how to find a particular hotel or restaurant, the fact is that sign language and a written card with the name of the place may do the job. If you want to interact at any level deeper with people you meet in foreign lands, it takes a bit more work. The important rewards of studying a language to a level of proficiency are benefits that are difficult to imagine beforehand. I  took four years of Latin in high school. In retrospect, that was a great mistake. Although there is secondary gain from such an undertaking (you know the general belief about how Latin helps one learn Spanish or any of the other Latin based tongues or get into medical school), but the fact is that studying any living tongue directly is a more certain way to learn how to make yourself understood in Paris or Portugal in the 21st century than in Rome two thousand years ago.

     To become really conversant, I found the need to immerse myself in a setting where the language was required for communication. After four years of Spanish in my college days, I found that I could barely understand what was said to me or express myself very coherently until I spent a summer at a boarding house for locals in Mexico City. A friend of mine and I were the only English speakers staying there so there was no question about what the language of the house was. By the time I left Mexico City, about six weeks after I arrived, I could actually follow conversations and even flirt with the women who were staying in the boarding house. That was a special status in language usage, one which produced a level of satisfaction that no amount of in school study even approximated. I was a Spanish speaker (though not yet a fluent one), a bi-lingual. Forget the Latin. I did. (Well, actually, I never even learned it.)

     I enjoyed my Spanish proficiency so much that, several years later in 1957, when I went to work in Germany, I did so with a Berlitz book on German tucked under my arm on the plane. I spent most of the flight trying to learn every word I could. Most importantly there were many, many English speakers in Germany at that time. My greatest impediment to learning that language was the inclination of Germans to respond in English to my broken German. I dealt with that by not answering in English anything that was said to me. Of course, that was a bit inconvenient since my German vocabulary was so limited and my grammar so broken, but it did give me the practice and the corrections I needed. The Germans I spoke with were enthusiastic about my desire to learn their tongue and were more than patient with my mistakes. My German continued to improve enough so that, after two years in the country, I was fluent enough to pass for German in limited conversations. (That did not include two philosophy courses I attempted at a nearby, venerable university which required a level I never reached in that language.) I loved being able to converse fluently in another foreign language. My addiction to language learning continued later in Italy where I taught for a year and learned another language and one I actually loved the sound of. Unlike the guttural sounds one had to endure to speak German, Italian flowed like a song. No wonder it gave birth to so much of the operatic music we listen to today. Learning these languages as well as some Hebrew along the way has resulted in very special and enjoyable experiences. There is something exciting in mastering and using other languages for needed communication.

      Additionally there is a special psychological component to learning even a bit of a language as well as a practical one. Of course, it is convenient and enjoyable to communicate with others in their language, but it is also a respectful thing to do. Not everyone can reproduce the sounds of another language well nor does every traveler have the capacity or motivation to actually study another language to the level of useful proficiency, but we can all make an effort. It is that effort that conveys respect for another culture. Germans practically applauded when I struggled with their language in a serious way as did the Italians. I eventually made an effort to learn a few words of conversation in the local tongue everywhere I went. When I was in a tribal area in New Guinea or rural India and greeted people with their words for hello or thanked them in their native tongue, it brought smiles of appreciation to their faces and immediately bridged some of the natural distance between us. It may not be necessary to take several years of college French or Russian to enhance one's travel. Learning a few key phrases and listening carefully to how people say everyday things so you can learn those expressions is a wonderful way to make new friends. A single "pleased to meet you" can be a big deal.

New Afghan Friends near the Khyber Pass, Pakistan

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