There are a number of things a traveler should learn before setting out to a new land, especially one where he doesn’t speak the language. Things like numbers are highly useful when paying bills. Asking if there’s any rooms available, or inquiring about a menu. Determining the location of the nearest bathroom.
We managed to learn none of those things in Spanish before traveling to Mexico. Now, if we were staying at a fancy resort in Cancun, it wouldn’t have been a big issue. But of course, we stayed in the much less touristy Guanajuato – and while we encountered a few English speakers, there weren’t many.
Sam and I both speak a little bit of German. Just enough to get by, likely to the chagrin of our high school German teacher. But Spanish? If we hadn’t seen it before on a menu at the local Tex-Mex place, we were clueless. That made for an interesting observation.
In situations where people were asking us questions in Spanish, and we’d already tried our hand at “¿hablas inglés?” without any success? We both found ourselves slipping into German, as though that would somehow magically bridge the language gap. We eventually learned that asking for the check at the end of a meal could be accomplished with “por favor trae la cuenta” but we both tried—several times—to ask by saying “Zahlen, bitte.” Apparently there’s something in human psychology that tells us if our primary tongue is not being understood, then the only other language we know must work instead.
Now I would never discourage anyone from learning a new language. Before we go back to Mexico – and I’m sure we’ll go back – we’ll learn at least a few more basics. But we didn’t let that lack of knowledge stop us this time, and we managed just fine. Travel is too wonderful and enriching to pass up because of something as ordinary as language.