It wasn’t shaping up to be my ideal Christmas Eve. I had spent much of the day fighting the urge to cry, and my spirits were low as I boarded the train with my two best friends.
The train’s destination was León, Spain, but I wished it could transport me to Portland, Oregon, USA. I was studying at a Spanish college and had planned to spend Christmas with a friend who was studying in Austria and another who had come over from the United States for the holiday. Our tour of Spain over the break sounded exciting as we planned the itinerary in our letters, but on the twenty-fourth of December our adventure dulled in comparison to being home with our families.
On the train, we talked about all that had happened since we last saw one another in September. Our English marked us as foreigners on a train carrying excited Spaniards home for la Nochebuena, Christmas Eve, with their families. A few seats away, a Spanish university student stared at us. Reaching into his scanty English vocabulary, he wrote a greeting in the steam on his window: “Yankee Go Home.”
Oh, if only we could go home! After contemplating his sentiment for a moment, I called out to the young man in Spanish, “You want us to leave?”
Surprised to hear me speak his language, he responded with the expected political opinions. I’d already discovered the resentment some Spaniards felt toward the American military bases in their country, and I wasn’t surprised when he raised that issue. My Spanish wasn’t perfect, but I translated for my friends as we shared our opinions. As we talked, the Spaniard seemed surprised that our convictions didn’t match the stereotype he had of Americans. The young man finally conceded that perhaps not all Americans were out to dominate the world, and we began laughing and enjoying our conversation.
Our new companion’s stop came before León, and he said good-bye as he gathered his things and walked toward the exit. Suddenly he stopped and turned back to his seat. Wiping off the phrase on the window with his jacket sleeve, he replaced it with a single English word: “Welcome.”
When I think about that homesick Christmas Eve, the encounter on the train seems so appropriate for the season of “peace on earth, good will toward men.” How amazing that just a few minutes of talking with ordinary Americans shattered the stereotypes the young Spaniard held.
The following summer the friend who had studied in Austria and I traveled through Europe, making new friends in several countries. We stayed with a goat herder’s family in Sicily, ate at the home of a medical school student in Florence, chatted with people in France, and helped build a church in Germany. What was our secret to meeting these people? Well, between the two of us, my friend and I could speak or at least stumble around in five languages. Not only did getting to know us change their views of Americans, but our own stereotypes crumbled as we got to know people.
I believe that learning another language gives one the amazing power to break down cultural walls and bring people together. I have found that nothing warms the soul of a native more than hearing a visitor attempt to communicate in his language. Speaking another’s language shows interest and respect for that person and his country. It says, “I value your culture, and I don’t expect you to do all the work in this relationship.” If we want world peace, I believe a good place to start is to learn to speak the world’s languages.