In Spanish, the word for…: Conversation starters

Odds are, you know at least part of a foreign language. Whether you’re bi- or tri-lingual, a regular polyglot, or only remember the basics from a high school French class, you most likely remember something, and more often than not that word means “poop.”

The  words people remember from languages they don’t use much are the fun words. Swear words, strange idioms, words that are plain fun to say: these are the words that we remember best.

Beyond some greetings and counting to ten, all I remember from my middle school Spanish class is how to say pencil sharpeners: Las sacapuntas. Why? Because it’s so much fun to say! Sacapuntas, sacapuntas. The fun rhythm made me smile then, and still makes me smile today.

When I moved on to American Sign Language, you can bet your bottom dollar that when showing friends what I’ve learned, I went straight to “horny,” “whore,” “bullshit.” It’s fun to know how to swear in secret—and in this case, in silence.

The first sentence I learned in German was Ich bin Blau: I am drunk. My friend taught me at a high school lunch one day.

My friend’s sister who studied abroad in Italy once told us of an Italian idiom that is equivalent “rose tinted glasses:” “Avere gli occhi foderati di prosciutto.” It’s funny because it is literally translated as “to have your eyes wrapped in ham.”

Language is not just important and brain-expanding; it can be a load of fun, too. Bringing up tongue twisters, swear words, and fun phrases in foreign languages can be a light-hearted conversation starter that leads into a linguistic parade. Bring your dictionaries!

Comforting Moon (Guest Post)

My boyfriend Colin is on a study abroad program in Oaxaca, Mexico. An introvert himself, he wrote this guest post about how being in Mexico gave him the confidence and drive to connect with people he normally wouldn’t have.

If you like this guest post, please leave a comment or email Colin at crugg129@gmail.com. He’s thinking about starting his own blog, so any feedback will be welcome. Enjoy!

Comforting Moon

When you look at the stars you can forget where you are. You can look up past the stars into the darkness, the same midnight blue around the world, and be comforted. That is, until the little differences start to build up, the new constellations or the angle of the moon, and again you feel alone.

In Oaxaca, Mexico, the moon waxes vertically, so that all I can see is an ever-thickening canoe, distinct from the classic DreamWorks chair. The people here eat chapulines (grasshoppers), put ketchup in their beer, and consistently arrive at least a half-hour late for any scheduled meeting. The worst cultural quirk one has to overcome is the infuriating habit people here have, upon being asked for directions, of instructing you on an imaginary pathway when they have never heard of the place you are seeking, all for the purpose of being polite. These are the small differences that weigh on you. Nothing revolutionary, but enough to weigh you down and make you question why you came: culture shock.

How do you overcome it? For me it was the simple act of discussion. When you talk to a Oaxacan beyond the obligatory “tell me about Oaxaca,” they rarely discuss the subtleties of munching on a cricket or the need to throw toilet paper in a trashcan so as to not clog the toilet. These are things that they do, not things that they are, just as Americans are a bit more complex than cheese-whiz, to-go coffee, and a bizarre desire to flaunt red, white, and blue.

When you talk to a Oaxacan, they often cease to be a Oaxacan to become a person. My host mother in the city, Martha, likes to travel and loves to tell stories about her children. My Spanish teacher, Miguel, studied geology for a semester in Oregon, and when his girlfriend at the time broke up with him his roommate helped him to discover Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. When you look past all the little differences, the customs that mean hardly anything, the placement of the stars, you realize that we are all the same. The comfort of a familiar midnight blue is the comfort of a shared humanity.

So then why do we travel? Why did I go far from home, learn a new language, and waste money to talk to people who are deep down the same as people back home in the Northeastern United States? After much thought, it can be put simply: to gain new perspectives. When you have to learn a new language, you not only have to work hard to be understood, but you also have to talk to strangers. People you would never have spoken to otherwise. You have to look for that deep blue sky somewhere under the new words and alien accent, because you’ll never learn French by talking to a Frenchman. Only from a person who speaks French. So now, I, the same boy who never raised his hand in class and murmured awkwardly as classmates introduced themselves to me, have begun to initiate conversations with complete strangers. I can talk about myself, not for myself but to connect with someone else and feel the humanity that they share with me. I can only hope that upon returning to my English-speaking homeland that this new perspective holds. Everyone is more than just their title. A brief connection can help you forget the strange angle of the moon.

Learning German

I think I’m going to start learning German. I feel like I should know a second language for my Europe trip, and frankly, American Sign Language just isn’t going to be the most helpful thing. I could brush up on my Italian, but I don’t plan on going to Italy, so I don’t know how helpful that would be.

I think German, because I don’t like the silent letters of French and there’s no real reason to learn Dutch, even if I’m spending most of my time in the Netherlands, because apparently everyone there learns English. So, German seems like the most obvious choice. We’ll see how it goes.

I’m lucky enough to be the sort of introvert who isn’t terrified of social interaction, even if I do need time to recharge. It took me a lot of work, but I’m also no longer afraid to talk to strangers. If I didn’t talk to anyone, a second language would be simply unnecessary.

I was asked recently what my favorite things about traveling were, and I said art, history, and food. I could spend hours in museums or just walking around a city. I could eat until I explode out of my pants. I like eating things where they’re famous, like fresh Maine lobsters or Louisiana gumbo, Canadian poutine and Italian pizza—which by the way I didn’t like at all. And I like seeing the local art, the “flavor” of the city, and I like being where history happened.

People came as an afterthought, because I haven’t travelled somewhere where they didn’t speak English in about three years. Connecting with people was something I just did, it wasn’t something I had to work at, and it didn’t seem like a “cultural” experience, or something I could only do on location. I meet new people all the time, it isn’t something unique to traveling…or is it?

After all, why am I trying to learn a language, where English is honestly probably enough? To connect with people on their level. To make friends over the language barrier. To be a traveler, not a tourist.

So, German. I have always loved German history, and the German language is so pretty to me…I may be in the minority with that opinion, though.

We do get to visit Germany, guaranteed, on a class trip—and even if that doesn’t happen for our semester, I’ll definitely spend a weekend there. I heard Berlin is beautiful.

Six months to learn conversational German. I’ve done more in less time…Let’s do it!

Auf Wiedersehen