Sometimes I feel like I’m one of those people living in the US for 20+ years and they still don’t speak English – yet they somehow get by. I used to look at them and wonder how that was possible. How can the old woman in China Town get through each day without really knowing what’s going on around her once she wanders out of China Town? They are somehow successfully faking it – they don’t really understand what is being said around them and to them yet they can function day to day.
I’m not judging these people – after all, I don’t know any other language and am often in their shoes in a short term way when I travel. It’s more that I’m in awe of them and their ability to function long term in a world where they don’t know the language.
However during a recent dinner in El Calafate in Argentina, I realized that this idea of ‘faking it’ isn’t as hard as I had once thought. After being in Spanish speaking countries for the last 2 months – I had picked up some words – mainly niceties such as please, thank you, hello, goodbye, excuse me, and some menu words.
I ordered a hamburger and draft beer by pointing and sounding out the words on the menu – however the pointing was really all that was necessary. The waitress took my order and asked me something in Spanish without really looking up from her notepad. I realize that in that sentence I heard the word frita which basically sounds like the word “fries” and in the context of the situation in which I ordered a hamburger I put it all together and quickly realize that she’s asking if I want fries with my burger. I answer “si” without really skipping a beat in the ‘conversation’. She scribbles on the pad and walks away.
About 15 minutes later she brings the food and says something again. I assume that she’s asking me if I want anything else with the meal because that’s the typical way a conversation like this would go. I answer “no” and smile. She walks away once again.
She comes back a few minutes later and rattles another Spanish sentence off and looks at me for a response. I assume that in the world of restaurant interactions and communication that she is asking me how everything is. I reply “bueno” – one of the few words I know in Spanish.
She seems pleased. I have answered correctly!
Then she says something else quickly, looks quickly at the packets of condiments on the table and looks at me for a response. For a millisecond I panic, but then I realize that I’m holding a French fry in my hand and I do a conversation gamble and guess that she is asking if I need more packets of ketchup. I respond “si” and soon she returns with a few more packets of ketchup. I gambled and it paid off.
I eat as much as I can of the big hamburger and decide to give the international signal that I’m finished and put my silverware on top of my plate and place my napkin on my plate. She comes over and asks me a question and looks at me for my response. I assume she’s confirming that I’m finished so I respond “si, fin”. She nods and removes the plate. As she picks it up she asks me another question. I assume she’s asking me if I want anything else such as coffee or dessert. I respond “no, gracias.”
I finally motion for the check (one of the universal non-verbal communications), I pay and leave. I have somehow made it through a complete dinner without knowing any Spanish and have faked my way through the whole dinner-server-patron conversation. It wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought.
In fact – I realize that after traveling around the world you really do hone your communication skills and you also realize that there are a number of ‘standard’ conversations you encounter daily at the grocery store, restaurants, and on transportation. You simply need to remain calm, think about the context of the conversation and watch the speakers non-verbals – and you can figure out more than you initially thought possible. Where I used to panic when foreign words came out of someone’s mouth now I consider it like a puzzle. Can I piece it together with the contextual clues and conversational assumptions? The answer is yes – you normally can with a little patience and observation – faking it is easier than it initially looks!
Sherry Ott is a refugee from corporate IT who is now a long term traveler, blogger, and photographer. She’s a co-founder of Briefcasetobackpack.com, a website offering career break travel inspiration and advice.
Additionally, she runs an around the world travel blog writing about her travel and expat adventures at Ottsworld.com.com.