How Do You Speak My Language So Well?

30 May

Adelia was a friend of mine when I studied abroad in Sevilla, Spain back in 2007. Years had passed without much communication, until a few months back when she began to ask me for advice on South America before a big move to Brazil. And now, after a month in Brazil, she’s in Buenos Aires for a week-long visit, and on Friday we saw each other for the first time in four years.

Even after the long time apart, she looks just as I remember, and though we’d liked to have caught up right then and there, with six other Brazilians in the pregame talking loudly and vying for attention, the best we could wiggle out was “4 years in 30 seconds, go!” One thing did happen, however, which was much more interesting. When I first got to the apartment in Las Cañitas where she’s staying with her old roommate from Sevilla (who is actually studying a Masters here) the Brazilians in the house didn’t pay much attention to me except for one who I chatted it up with. But soon they all headed out on the balcony and with Adelia speaking a few words in Portuguese, suddenly they all opened up.

I almost felt badly for her at first, knowing exactly what it feels like, You become the toy in the party and everyone wants to ask questions or grill you on something. It can be nerve wracking the first few times it happens, yet it’s also thrilling, to be able to communicate in another language. Adelia started speaking in Portuguese and the Brazilians broke into huge smiles and claimed disbelief that a foreigner could speak so well. Apparently she has an accent from some region in northwestern Brazil which couldn’t be explained by the fact that she’s from Florida. Shy and humble, she said the standard, “Oh no, I don’t speak that well…” but the Brazilians wanted more, wanted to know how she could speak their language so well. I could relate to my own triumphs with this in Spanish.

For me it was also impressive; the last time I saw Adelia we were both beginner Spanish speakers, and now here we were, in Argentina both fluent but in different languages. I don’t speak Portuguese but with the Spanish and a French background (high school education), I’m able to loosely keep up. The Brazilians even wanted to talk to me and find out how I could speak Spanish so well, as if the realization that you could speak another language was a ticket in, and it really is. As people always say, “language opens doors.”

In a single conversation we were continuously switching from Spanish-Portuguese-English, often all in the same sentence. Someone on the outside would have been totally confused by the situation. These experiences are always priceless and explain why we travel. There’s a huge difference in how you speak and also understand a culture, and it often will direct how deep the conversation can go. On a number of occasions, for example, someone here has opened up to me and told me to leave Argentina and go back home, yet not in a xenophobic way. The fact that I could speak to them well enough showed that I perhaps wasn’t just another tourist, and that they could say more to me than just “Welcome to my city” or “It’s a beautiful country”.

Study a foreign language and learn about another culture. In fact, just today the New York Times ran a piece on The Bilingual Advantage, stating that it can also help prevent or slow down the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. You would be surprised at how valuable just a few words or phrases can be, and it really makes a trip overseas worthwhile.

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