This I Believe

Rachel - Reisterstown, Maryland
Entered on October 29, 2006
Age Group: Under 18

I believe in learning at least a few words in as many foreign languages as possible. Since English is among the most widely spoken language on the planet, we don’t often find ourselves struggling to communicate with others. We don’t always realize that it is unreasonable to expect others to know our language fluently, especially when we know nothing of theirs. While visiting another country, it is both practical and courteous to speak several words or more in the native language of the area.

I was eleven when I first traveled to a non-English-speaking country, Spain. In Madrid, my family and I took a detour through a dog park. We strolled along the stone pathway, and I trailed behind, watching the animals trot beside their owners. An especially adorable puppy walked right past me, and, without thinking, I reached down to pet his back. Suddenly, his owner began to yell at me in Spanish. I took the hint, and kept walking, ashamed and confused. What had I done wrong? More importantly, what was she saying? To this day, I have no idea what that woman shouted at me.

Of course, not all of my experiences were negative. In recent years, the most interesting language barrier I’ve dealt with was in Germany. Although German and English are similar in writing, when German is spoken, it’s almost impossible to distinguish individual words. From the day I stepped off the plane in Germany to the day I returned home almost two weeks later, the language sounded like a series of garbled grunts. Nevertheless, I tried, with some difficulty, to order food at restaurants, read street signs, and understand conversations around me. I was consistently ineffective, but I continued to practice. No matter where I was, I spoke the few German words I knew. While crossing the street, I told my mother that I was walking under beautiful Linden trees. On the subway, I asked my father for some mineral water. In our rental car, I asked my brother if he was going to drink the rest of his Powerade. Despite all of my practice, it took a few days before anyone actually understood me. My first success with a bona fide German person came after I learned the word for orange juice. I asked a waitress for orangen zaften and, much to my surprise, she brought me orange juice. Beaming widely, she told me that few English-speaking tourists try to communicate in German at all.

After returning to my hotel room, I thought about what that waitress said. Sitting on my bed, I realized that I knew very little of foreign languages and cultures. There are between three and eight thousand languages in the world today, and how many do I speak fluently? One: English. English is helpful, but it’s also advantageous to know various words and phrases in other languages, not only for the sake of communication, but to forge deeper connections between ourselves and communities across the globe.