How often are you in a situation where you don’t understand the language being spoken around you? While hanging out with family and friends over the last week, I could count three distinct languages where I had to muddle my way through…
First was when my parents and I were in staying in a hotel on a day trip to Montreal. As we passed by one of the housekeepers, she asked in French which room we were in, and whether she can clean it. I was able to understand and reply smoothly, somewhat to my surprise. And down in the parking lot, another guest asked whether the parking ticket should be paid at the machine before leaving (yes). One thing I like about Montreal is that they don’t assume that you can’t speak French. Looks like those years of Alliance Française, high school and college French classes paid off.
Then we were at dimsum with some friends of my parents: a couple, and their two kids (ages 2 and 9). They spoke Mandarin. My parents did also, but my Mandarin is pretty bad (I grew up speaking Cantonese and English with my parents). At first – it was all I could do just to sit there and try to catch snippets of whatever was being said. But since I could ask my parents to help translate, I relaxed and just let the conversation flow. Towards the end, I could even make attempts at conversation. My parents said they were impressed – I wasn’t, but it’ll have to do, when my Mandarin was never that good to begin with.
Another wrinkle was that the wife in the family is deaf, and so also knows ASL. She’s pretty good at lip reading, but at times, her family would combine Mandarin and ASL when speaking with her. When speaking with my parents, she’d also sometimes write out short notes on pieces of paper when talking about more complicated topics. I do have an ASL visual dictionary at home, but this made me think that it’d be fun to take some ASL classes, say at the Sign Language Center. So many things to do, so little time!
Languages are tough to learn and maintain when you don’t have speakers to practice with. But I think it’s so rewarding to be able to converse even a little in somebody’s native language – it’s literally how they think. You’re entering their world – as a guest. It’s up to you to hold up your end and not mangle their language. If you’re lucky, they’ll appreciate your gesture.