2017-06-23 / View From Here


Languages and Me

Next week, I will be taking a short vacation trip to Portugal, followed by a few days in Ireland. I’ve been attempting to learn some basic Portuguese for the trip and I thought I might discuss my adventures with languages over the years, which has become something of a avocation.

There are people who are extremely adept at languages. The late Pope John Paul II would be a case in point. John Paul spoke at least six (and as many as twelve, reports vary) languages fluently, very helpful for the head of a church with members around the world.

May I assure readers that I definitely am not among these highly proficient students of language. I guess I’m fairly decent, but my efforts are plodding and require repeated use of language tapes, dictionaries and phrase books. I always test by skills by trying to decipher the local newspaper when I arrive in a country, with mixed results.

Like most Americans of my generation, I did not formally study any language until I was 14 years old and in ninth grade and started four years of Spanish. (I guess I previously knew a few words of Latin from the Catholic Mass.) Starting language study that late was a bit of a shame, since it’s generally understood that children are more adept at learning than adults and that young children can learn to speak a language with little or no accent.

I did also study French as well as Spanish in college. I always found French harder than Spanish, largely because its sounds are more subtle than Spanish, where every syllable is pretty much spoken.

In any event, my first effort to use a foreign language was trying French during a short trip to Montreal and Quebec City when I was 20. However, I first really used a foreign language extensively during a number of low budget trips through Mexico in 1979-81. I remember boning up on Spanish prior to the trip by watching the Mexican news broadcasts on channel 41. It definitely did need Spanish on that trip, trying to check into cheap hotels and navigate the intercity bus system.

As I have mentioned, I had an annual trip with young Robert every spring and I did make the lad prepare for the trip by listening to language tapes so he at least could order in a restaurant and ask for basic directions. We did French twice (France and Morocco), Italian and Spanish twice (Spain and Mexico.)

I still try to keep up with languages, particularly Spanish. For example, I listen to a few Yankee games in Spanish every year. In 2014, I followed the World Cup soccer games on Univision. I’m currently even reading a novel in Spanish by Gabriel Marquez.

When I tell people that I try to brush up on language skills before a foreign trip, a common reaction is that many people at my destination speak English anyway. I think, however, that this misses the point a bit.

If you rely on English speakers only, you are largely confining yourself to dealing with the tourist industry. I always think that a country is more interesting if you can travel a bit on your own, maybe take the local subway or bus, visit out of the way restaurants and shops. In some countries, bargaining for goods (or even taxi rides) is common. Local language skill can be very helpful for all of this. I also think that you can understand the local culture better by interacting with people who are not always used to talking with Americans or other foreigners.

In any event, my Portuguese studies continue. The grammar and structure of Portuguese are pretty similar to Spanish, but the pronunciation is pretty wildly different and I have to unlearn quite a bit of what I’ve learned. Nevertheless, it’s a bit of a challenge and I’m looking forward to giving it a shot in Lisbon. We’ll see.

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