Leela’s Journal #2

“The cow that paid my way.”

Misadventures in a foreign language.

Learning a language in the classroom presents few risks besides a bad grade. On the street in a foreign country, however, the motivation to communicate well lies in your success or failure not at an exam but at the task at hand, be it finding a bathroom, finding lunch or finding where you are!

Imagine you go to a far off planet occupied by aliens that communicate in winks and whistles. How will you communicate to the aliens that you need to use the restroom? Or that you are hungry? These basic necessities can usually be communicated through miming, or acting out the motion that you want to communicate. For example, you could approach an alien, tap him on his shoulder, and raise your hand to your mouth to communicate that you are hungry. Beyond these simple messages, though, you might need to know which winks to wink and which whistles to whistle. Which winks and whistles mean, “I want to go back home to Earth?

On Earth, humans communicate through thousands of different spoken (or sign) languages, and so if you go to a foreign land on this planet, you will have to know which words to speak in which language so that your hosts will understand you. This isn’t the only reason to learn another language, though. An even more valuable reason to learn a language is so that you can understand your hosts. You can listen to their stories, and find out what it was like for them to grow up in a different part of the world, with different history and culture and customs.

Here in Spain, the language is Spanish. Both Spain and Spanish are English words. If you live in Spain and speak Spanish, you will not call your country Spain, you will call it España.  You will not call your language Spanish, you will call it español. I came to this country speaking with a good command of Spanish. Or so I thought. I had a fine time finding an apartment and starting my job. I had to say things like, “Is the apartment furnished?” and “How many days of vacation will I have?” I felt very proud of myself being to navigate so well in another language.

Then, one day, I realized just how limited my Spanish really was. Some friends asked me what I was doing in Spain, and I explained to them that a scholarship had paid for me to come here to work. A scholarship!? They asked. They seemed very surprised, so I thought maybe scholarships weren’t very common in Spain.

“Yes,” I told them, “a scholarship.”

“That’s crazy. How is that even possible?”

“It’s a very good scholarship,” I said. “A government scholarship.”

They all laughed hysterically, and I started to suspect that something wasn’t quite translating.

“Wait, what’s so funny,” I asked.

“Well,” they replied, “We’ve just never heard of scholarships like these. Here in Spain, scholarships just give milk, not money to go to other countries.”

“Milk?” I asked.

“Well, yes, milk and also beef.”

I started laughing too. Finally I realized what had happened. The Spanish word for scholarship is veca. The Spanish word for cow is vaca. You see how close those words are? Can you think of similar sounding pairs of words in English that means different things? What about pen and pan? Or life and leaf. Or keys and kiss. You can start to imagine the miscommunications possible. I realized I hadn’t been telling them about a scholarship, I had been telling them about a cow! “A really good cow paid for me to come to Spain and work. In fact, it was a government cow!” No wonder they laughed so hard.

My friends didn’t judge me for this mistake. We all laughed together. When someone in your community doesn’t speak the language as well as you do, it’s important to remember that you have been speaking your native language since you were a baby. They are still learning. The exciting part is that you can help them! Isn’t that great? You can use something that you do naturally—speaking English—to help others. You can be extra patient, extra kind and teach them new words. Try it out with someone. You’ll be amazed how grateful they are.

If anyone wants to learn Spanish, there are a lot of students at my school that would love to have a pen pal. If you want a friend in Spain, to write letters with and send things to, ask your teacher to get in touch with me. I’d be happy to give you some contacts.

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