I began this post in Europe and competed the post back in the States.
“Danke.” The man laughs. I just used the word for “thank you” in German… to a guy in Italy. I correct myself with a “grazie”and head out the door. I have come to truly respect those that know more than one language fluently and can switch between them with ease. I know this sounds weird, although it might be because Spanish is the only other language I somewhat know excluding a few words in other languages to get by. Whenever people speak in something besides English, my brain automatically starts thinking Spanish.
I have actually practiced my Spanish quite a lot so far, despite not visiting Spain yet. I’ve mentioned in previous posts about my adventures in Italy of speaking Spanish while the Italians answer in Italian. When my sister, friend and I went to Krakow, Poland, we went to get food at an independent food stand. After asking the guy if he spoke English, he said no, but actually that he spoke Spanish and Polish. I then played translator for my sister and friend and ordered us food. Never thought I would be using my spanish while in Poland!
Despite having a Spanish roommate, I never speak it back in our apartment. I am too self conscious to speak to a native speaker, especially when I speak what they call, “new world” Spanish. Even the word “gracias” is pronounced very differently between people from Mexico and Spain. I’ve realized I do much better with my Spanish when my hand is forced and when speaking to someone from Mexico. The other night, two friends and I were hanging out in front of the Parliament building. We met two brothers from Canada while we were hanging out. They obviously spoke French (from Montreal) and English. One spoke Spanish as well and began speaking to me in Spanish after I told him I knew some but needed practice. I talked to him for a bit in Spanish and tried to swap back to English. He refused to speak to me in English and therefor was forcing my hand. There were frustrating moments. However, by the time we left, I had about a 30 minute conversation in Spanish. That has never happened before. I never thought I could do that.
Now back in the United States, I’m surrounded by English. Never will I have to ask, or will be asked, if I speak English. This is so bazar after spending the past 5 months doing this on a daily basis and responding to any English that I heard–even by strangers on the street. I am determined to become fluent in a second language (preferably Spanish) but as I continue with day-to-day activities back home, I become more aware how much more difficult of a task this in the US. There is no where to practice a second language. There is an astronomically small chance you’ll be asked to only speak another language to someone here compared to Europe. Yes, Americans are ignorant about global affairs. I don’t disagree, especially after my experiences these past few months. However, one of the arguments that “supports” this statement that I’ve occasionally heard, is also flawed. Yes, a majority of Americans only speak English. Yes, I do believe we should put more of an emphasis on this than we do. However, we aren’t globally ignorant because we aren’t bilingual. There isn’t the need (or ability to practice) for this skill here like there is in Europe. So yes, Americans are still ignorant on global issues, but don’t blame it on the lack of bilingual speakers. I would like to see Americans become bilingual but a journey begins with one step at a time. I guess I can take my baby step today.