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When You Do Not Speak The Local Language

Updated on November 1, 2009

Hello There, VivBounty here to share with you the adventure and joys of living in a country where you do not speak the local language.

As you'll see from my varied hubs, eventually every hub relates to my travels. I have been travelling as long as I can remember. For children language is a natural process and the particular language is of no regard.

I have a cousin who was born in Kenya to a Seychelloise mother, Italian father and naturally was babysat by the Kenyan housekeeper. He went to Italy as a toddler returning with stories in sentences flowing with a seamless mixture of Swahili, Creole and Italian. Yes, all the languages in each sentence.

My friend in Spain, bi-lingual French and English, who was adopted from an orphanage in Calcutta, India by French parents, married a Belgian-born man whose mother was a Ugandan-born Indian. She and her husband also bi-lingual French and English, settled on the Costa Blanca in Spain. After she returned to work, their baby, as she explained, poor thing, was in a day care where people spoke everything but, French and English. She expressed to me once that she was learning Spanish, just the same as her baby was, one word at a time, by osmosis and immersion. She certainly sounded fluent compared to me and obviously was managing fine as she had a job in the tourism industry and spoke Spanish without the hesitation I experienced.

Mistaken Identity

I have had brushes with Spanish throughout my adult life. When I visited Cancun in my early twenties, I was mistaken for a local. I was double and triple-checked each time I returned the all-inclusive resort. As I was travelling alone, when a hotel rep asked if I'd like to accompany her into town for a shopping spree, and her friends refused to believe I couldn't speak Spanish. This was also the case for the next 3 Mexican vacations I was to take.

Thailand is also a place where I seemed to fit in as a local. When I was teaching English for 2 years in Japan, my mother came to spend Christmas with me so we took the opportunity to visit nearby Hong Kong, China, Macau and Phuket. Again the Thai were convinced we were one of them, especially as we hailed from Indian Ocean islands and ate much the same cuisine and manner as they did. 

As a young travel agent I was sent on a reservations system course to Salt Lake City, Utah for a week. The standard city tour was arranged for the agents in the class who came from various parts of the USA. When we got to Temple Square, the young guide who was doing her mandatory college placement there for a year handed us each copies of the Book of Mormon before we began the tour of the square. Bless her youth and naiveté, she gave the Spanish lady, a fair-skinned blonde the English version and me a Spanish one, which of course I couldn't read.

On a spa vacation to Cuba with my sister we were once again mistaken for locals. The Cuban customers at the spa found us so like them, they invited us to their homes to meet their families. We found the Cubans to be the warmest people we have ever met in the world. Each time we returned from a vacation to a Hispanophone country, we promised ourselves we should learn the language, but never did.

Regardless of the city or country, the idea that we are often mistaken for locals only reinforces my believe that human beings are more alike than we are different.

Ultimate Travel Tool - Talking Translator

This is sure something my mother and I could have used when we spent two weeks in Phuket. The beaches might have been on the same ocean as our island, but the language was nothing like ours. Fortunately English is widely spoken in tourist areas.

Who Knew I Would End Up Living In Spain Someday?

The Universe, that's who! It is funny how the Universe nudges you and in my case, I didn't hear the "psssst" from the bush, nor did I heed the little pebble that narrowly missed my nose, then I finally got it when the brick hit me in the head. So when I found my soul mate and eventually move to Spain, as asked myself "Why the heck hadn't I paid attention to all those signs and learned Spanish for the 2 decades life had been throwing it in front of me"?

Well I have a French heritage of a sort. See the brief description of my extraction in my hub Where Creole Is Spoken. I got to Spain and now had to set up a life. My fiancée fortunately studied Latin as a child. He had a great vocabulary but no confidence to actually use it. On the other hand I knew a few vacation Spanish words, but nothing like a phrase, never mind a sentence. "Hola" comes to mind, but luckily, not having a shy bone in my body, I just gave it a whirl while he stood behind feeding me words. We were usually met with giggles of appreciation mixed with friendly correction for my efforts, especially by the kids at the local McDonald's.

When we shopped and dined I would hear him and the locals say "gracias", pronounced as if the 'c' were 'th'. More like "grathias". I thought everyone had a lisp. I would eventually learn that it was a regional accent.

A word I could find no association with, mostly because I was hindered by my French heritage, is the Spanish word for post, correos. To further baffle me, the colour of the sign on the building was yellow. All other countries I've lived in post offices have had combinations of blue, white, and red signs. I needed to track a package my sister had sent me so we went into Santa Pola to find the post office, looking for something like postal, aero postal, avion to no avail. A fortune teller on the street, dressed the part complete with bandana and hoop earrings wrote down the Spanish word for post office and pointed us in the right direction. I expected to it to make some sense to me, but it didn't. We got there and could not make ourselves understood, of course, not being able to speak a word of Spanish. A friend of mine months later brilliantly came up with correspondence for word association. She had of course studied with some Spanish cassette tapes.

Eventually a second package arrived from my sister in the USA and still no sign of the first one. I took no chances this time. Finding a translator in the local ex-patriots publication, with second package in hand, I paid her €15 to take me back to the post office, translate that the first package looked exactly like this one and this time I had a tracking number, but found that no one had come to pick up the parcel so it had been returned to sender.

Grocery shopping was another adventure. About all I knew in Spanish was the word cilantro again from my vacations and eating in Mexican restaurants. My sister-in-law from the UK found the shopping flyers immensely interesting and picked up words by picture association for the 2 weeks she was visiting with us. She was great fun to shop with. Eventually the young girls in the supermarkets would spot us and come running over to tell us the Spanish word for the item we were eyeing, one product at a time, we learned.

The Spanish ladies in market stalls were learning English and other languages to help the "expats" as time went on in the new urbanization of Gran Alacant where we lived. Well I wanted to learn Spanish, not a moment too soon, I'm sure you'd agree, so I asked them the Spanish word as I pointed to the produce and they taught me with each market day. So much more fun than boring tape, this was a living lesson!

Finally it dawned on me that we should buy an English-Spanish-English dictionary if we were to get anywhere with this. It became like an American Express card, I never left home without it. With the help of the staff at our local eating establishments, eventually I was actually able to carry on a conversation in Spanish. This was of course before the advent of iPod instant audio translation. 

Finally Able To Converse With Our Spanish Neighbours

When we sold our home in Spain, I wanted to write a farewell card to our adjoining neighbours. As I had now done for the past 4 years, I got out my trusty dictionary and translated what the card said in English to what I thought it said in Spanish along with my sentiments. Just to be sure I was close to coherent, I took the card to our estate agent, and English girl who had taught herself Spanish and conducted all the house tours for the Spanish. She was amazed at what I had accomplished with my little pocket dictionary. She pulled out her huge 5,000 Spanish verb conjugator and didn't find any errors in my card. Much of what I had written was also absorbed in conversation with the locals, due to my affinity and fascination for languages. As my sister always says, "Trust your brain to remember what you've learned. It is an amazing organ".

I bought them a potted plant for the garden and delivered it along with the farewell card next door. They were enchanted and sad at the same time. The introduced me to their cat by name, brought out family photos, told me the story of how their grandson was brain-damaged after an extremely long delivery time at birth, and all of this in Spanish. We hugged and cried over coffee as I shared stories of my own disabled sister and how special the special people in our lives are.

As I reflect on this now, I wish I had taken the time to drop by for a visit sooner instead of just saying the passing "hello", "nice day", etc. when our neighbours came down for their beach holiday away from the cooler climes of their permanent residence in Northern Spain. Anyway, as it turned out, our one visit, though only an afternoon, was lovely and familiar, and as I always knew, love of family, an extending hand of friendship and a fond farewell transcend all language barriers and reinforce our common bond of humanity regardless of race, creed or culture.

Prosperous Blessings,

Fantastic Travel


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    • VivBounty profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Canada

      Hello there TrudyVan. Thank you for your comment. We have so much fun just winging it with gestures even as shy as my hubby is, he eventually gets drawn in. I even inspired my 80-year-old neighbour in Spain to write a note in Spanish, get on a local bus alone, and go to track a long-awaited package from her sister in the UK, found lying at the post office awaiting pick-up. Her daughter was so worried about her saying I had put ideas in her head, etc. until she saw her come skipping up the road with said package in her hand and a big, proud smile on her face.

    • TrudyVan profile image

      TrudyVan Curre 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      Hello there VivBounty you have done it again. Fantastic information. I really need to learn how to speak another language, so your hub has come at the right time.


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