I'll never forget the time I confidently approached a sales clerk overseas and asked her in Spanish, "Como esta' usted?" She looked at me blankly -- which was not surprising, because I was in Poland.
It always seems to happen. When I speak a foreign language, I'm always one country behind. I've brought many good conversations to a halt when I've unconsciously spoken Italian in Thailand, Spanish in Japan, and Chinese in Australia.
I can't figure out why this happens. Other people get jet lag, I get language lag. I love to travel and I love languages. Unfortunately, I've always done fine in the former and lousy in the latter.
In high school I studied Latin (which would help if I ever run into Julius Caesar). In college I studied Spanish, and overseas I've studied French, Chinese and Polish. I've always felt obligated to learn the language of my host country, even if it's only a few phrases. And it was just a few phrases that revealed to me that I was never going to be a linguist.
I was traveling through Europe trying to see as many countries in two months as my Eurailpass could cover. It was, I astutely reasoned, silly to try to master 24 languages in 60 days. So I turned to my guidebook for assistance. In the back were capsule phrases and I thought I'd try them out one eveningen route to Copenhagen.
On the train I sat opposite a cheerful looking, elderly Danish couple. I flipped to the back of the book and with an exaggerated accent tossed off a few less-than-sophisticated comments about food, the weather, and bathrooms. The elderly couple smiled, but said nothing. I repeated the phrases. No response. I tried other phrases. I counted my fingers and toes aloud. More smiles from the couple, but no replies. I thought of counting their fingers and toes, but my guidebook only went up to 20.
I was getting agitated. This couple didn't look so charming anymore, so I finally yelled the phrases at the old geezers. They looked petrified, but neither said anything nor called the police. Finally, I held the book up to their faces and pointed to the oft-repeated phrases. They looked at each other and shook their heads consolingly. Then they pointed to an English word at the top of the page. My Danish actually was Dutch. I was on the wrong page.
When I began spending longer periods of time in a country, I took intensive courses in the language of my hosts. My first course was Chinese, which I studied three hours a day, five days a week for five weeks. Our instructor didn't speak English, but we had a textbook that was written in English and Chinese, so we all survived. When we did well, ourteacher would give us a thumbs-up gesture and exclaim, "hen hao" (very good). I was the only person to attend all 75 hours, and I made use of the language on my daily afternoon forays into downtown Shanghai. But sometimes I had the sneaking suspicion that I wasn't making myself clear.
I remember when I was seated at a banquet with a dozen or so Chinese. They were local dignitaries and I thought it would be nice to engage in a bit of small talk.
"Wo meiguoren laoshi," I said, explaining that I was an American teacher.
"Huh? What was that you said?" the fellow on my right asked in English, appearing a bit startled.
"Wo meiguoren laoshi," I repeated with enthusiasm.
The fellow on my left looked at me. "Sir, you're going to have to speak slower and clearer," he said in English. "Many Americans study Chinese, but they make basic mistakes and get confused trying to use all the proper accents."
I spoke more slowly, more clearly, tried different phrases, but couldn't get one person at that table to understand a word I said. I was in the right country, using the right language, but the only time I could make myself understood was when I explained in English what I was trying to say in Chinese.
The next year I maintained my perfect attendance record through five weeks of Polish lessons in Krakow. But every time the teacher called on me,I would suddenly blurt out an answer in Chinese. That Chinese, which had lain dormant for a year in the States (and which, I guess, was pretty dormant in China), now came bursting forth with such rapidity that I couldn't believe what was transpiring. It was a shame I couldn't take my Polish final exams in Chinese.
Now, four years later, occasionally I unconsciously say hello to friends in Polish or Spanish and find Chinese springing out in my seventh grade classroom. When a student answers a question particularly well, I've been known to give the thumbs-up gesture and say, "Hen hao."
None of this leaves me particularly disappointed. The locals appreciate it when a visitor strives to communicate in the language of the host country. I'm proud of my attempts to master Latin, French, Spanish, Chinese, and Polish -- the last language that I studied. This summer I hope to take a crack at the language my grandparents often spoke -- Yiddish. I'm looking forward to hearing my Polish again!