Being an expat often includes learning a foreign language and we all have different learning styles. When I was trained to be a language teacher, I was taught that there are three different types of students: Some monitor very closely what they are saying (we used the expression “filter”), i.e. prior to speaking they think it all through in order not to make any mistake. They try to figure out the right sentence structure, the right tense, and of course the right vocabulary. If in doubt, they rather don’t talk at all. I belong to that category, and may I say, it doesn’t help. I sometimes find myself standing vis-à-vis of someone and am almost bursting with what I want to say, yet I only nod or shake my head, looking rather foolish, while my brain is oh so busy trying to find the right tense. Once the
threat chance of a conversation has passed, I believe to come up with the right answer and think about what I could have said and how clever a remark it would have been. Instead, everybody must be under the impression that I am the biggest bore on earth. Or that I might have swallowed my tongue. It’s pathetic. What helps, though, is a glass of wine – turns the unforgiving filter into a soft focus!
Like that one evening in Madrid: I went to a college there just for the duration of my holidays to improve my Spanish. My group included one guy from Scotland, one from England, one from Ireland, a Canadian girl and a giggling Chinese guy who had a fetish for large noses which I was very grateful for, since he was the only person ever who made me believe that my nose was tiny. But I digress. What I wanted to say was that apart from those few lessons in the mornings, we hardly spoke any Spanish, and I still felt very shy displaying my poor knowledge of the language in front of my brother who was living in Madrid at that time. However, wise man that he is, he took me dancing in the evening and bought me a couple of drinks – oh boy, was I fluent in Spanish! So, dear over-users of this annoying language filter: Start drinking! And yes, this is the perfect excuse for every expat to get drunk every now and then!
No drinking excuse for people who belong to the remaining two categories, I am afraid. There are those who do use this filter but at the same time aren’t afraid of making mistakes – surely the most desirable group. Yet a dull subject for a post. And then there are those who hardly ever use their filter but who just talk without fear. Mr. R. is one of those, and though I sometimes found it rather entertaining to listen to him when we first arrived in Mexico and he didn’t speak a word of Spanish, I first and foremost admired him for his courage. The thing is, somehow everybody understands, and that’s the main thing, isn’t it?
Another person who belongs to the third category is my dad. My dad moved to Latvia when he was 6 and didn’t speak Latvian. That made him a target for bullies, and the poor guy got beat up at school every day, but luckily he managed to become fluent very quickly. When he moved back to Germany at the age of 18, he didn’t speak German but again picked up the language pretty fast. So he naturally is used to making himself understood and overcoming his fear of making mistakes. I guess that’s the reason why he can talk to ANYBODY. Like when he was here and I overheard him chatting with the gardeners. Since he had been doing the gardening, he wanted to let them know there was no need to remove leaves or trim hedges, but he only wanted them to mow the lawn. But how do you say that in Spanish when you don’t speak the language? I would of course first consult the dictionary to look up the right vocabulary, my dad however just said, “No, no, nix clean – cut!” and he was waving his arms, pointing here and there, and the gardeners nodded and understood.
The same thing happened with the pool boy. There they were, chatting like two old friends, my dad using a mix of English, German and some Spanish words like si and claro, and all went well. In fact, those workers got so fond of him that they always requested to talk to him and I could clearly feel that they had a lot more confidence in him than in me.
My dad wouldn’t have needed an interpreter for this, that’s for sure!
But it didn’t come as a surprise to me. Ever since that one Christmas I knew that my dad had a special talent in making himself understood: My sister-in-law’s sister from Madrid was visiting, and since she was studying German, we tried our best to speak slowly and clearly. So in an attempt to make conversation, I asked her very politely whether her parents had been to Germany yet. Que? “Have your parents ever been to Germany?” Que? That’s when my dad lost his patience with me and said, “Mama – Papa – Alemania – eh?”, and with the “eh”, he threw his arms up in the air which looked very Mediterranean, and L. beamed at him and said No, and my dad looked at me and said, “See, that’s not so difficult, is it?” Right he is!