I didn’t think it would be a problem to move to Guatemala without speaking Spanish. I didn’t speak Hebrew when I moved to Tel Aviv, or Thai when I moved to Thailand. I’ve gotten pretty good at picking up a handful of useful phrases wherever I go. English is so widely spoken nowadays that it’s pretty easy to fall back on that, but we shouldn’t take it for granted. As travelers/visitors/guests we should be eager to at least try to learn a bit of the language of our hosts. So much of our culture, history, and personality are transmitted through language. It’s easy to be intimidated and overwhelmed at the idea of learning a whole new language, but I’ve only ever received warm smiles in response to my attempts at communicating in the local language of wherever I am. People appreciate that you are making an effort to learn. So, next time you travel try to be willing to learn and open to embarrassment.
I Duolingo-ed a bit in Spanish before coming to Guatemala and tested out a few other apps too. Most of what I’ve learned I picked up around town, and thanks to some very patient friends with better Spanish skills. I’ve also gotten pretty good at filling in holes in my comprehension using context clues.
Fun fact: in addition to Spanish, there are 22 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala, as well as Garifuna (mostly in Livingston, on the Caribbean coast).
Here’s what I’ve learned in Spanish in 6 months in Guatemala:
-So many food and food-related words! Fruit, veg, herbs, and all my favorite foods.
-Numbers (but 60 and 100 often sound the same to me)
-General transactions like: thank you; help; can I have; please wash my clothes on delicate so they don’t shrink; red wine please.
Here are some other languages I’ve picked up (and still remember):
French is probably the one I’m best at, but I’m still not fluent by any means. My goal for 2022 is to spend some time in France practicing and improving.
I know the alphabet in American Sign Language, as well as I don’t know and orange. I can also say sneakers and night thanks to Rick Charette.
I wrote about everything I learned in Thai in a previous post as I was getting ready to leave Thailand.
If I were dropped in Israel now, 10 years later, I wonder what I would remember. I think a few phrases would come back to me. I can say I live in Tel Aviv (but not in the past tense) in Hebrew.
I know how to say hello, thank you, my name is, and United Nations in Arabic. Random, I know.
Also random is the one thing I remember from my 5 weeks in Turkey 13 years ago: let’s go!
Students from Afghanistan taught me some basic Persian phrases at a work event a few years ago, which I can’t recall off the top of my head but are written down in my phone notes. I took a short Vietnamese class in Hoi An, which I also cannot recall off the top of my head but there are notes.
Another fun fact: According to Ethnologue there are over 7,000 languages spoken in the world! About 40% of them are endangered, meaning there are less than 1,000 speakers remaining. AND only 23 languages are spoken by more than half the world’s population! I have a lot to learn.
Learning a few phrases everywhere I go is fun, very useful, and possibly a cool party trick!