Bilingualism and being lost in Mexico — The North Star Reports – by Jennifer Battcher. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal
I have great respect for people who are fluent in more than one language. Six years of Spanish and a minor in the subject have left me able to understand the teachers of the Spanish Immersion program at the local elementary school as they talk to their second and third grade classes yet completely baffled when they talk to each other. This respect for people who are fluent in more than one language comes not only from trying and minimally succeeding to learn another language, but also from my experiences in Mexico.
I travelled to Mexico on a service learning trip, and one of the activities planned for us was to go out into the city in small groups and try to find our way back to the market. As my group and I wondered around stopping people on the street to ask for directions, I felt lucky that my native language is English. Everyone we stopped to talk to was very patient with me as I butchered conjugations, piecing together questions. When they answered, my mumbled pleas of “más despacio, por favor” (slowly, please) was met with a quick switch to English if they knew it. Using the two languages, we were able to find our way.
This experience made me realize how incredibly terrifying it must be to arrive in a country of which you don’t speak the language and no one can understand you. Most people we talked to know some English, and my group knew some Spanish, yet we still managed to find ourselves awkwardly wandering through an adult film store on the suggestion of someone to “take a shortcut through this building.” What a privilege it is to fluently speak a language that is well-known across the world.
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Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal, Associate Professor of History and Politics, The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, MN, USA
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29 responses to “Bilingualism and being lost in Mexico — The North Star Reports – by Jennifer Battcher. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal”
I think many people, myself included, tend to forget they have English-speaking privileged. By simply knowing it we have a greater access to social and educational institutions, and our employment opportunities worldwide increase significantly. It’s truly interesting to see how much power language has.
I myself can only speak one language and that is english (obviously). It is my belief that people who can speak a second language can give them so many more opportunities in areas of work or situations like you were placed in. In regard to english, I think that it is so spoken around the world that when you are in a different country or a place that is foreign to you that people around you will most likely speak english.
I also agree with having a ton of respect for people who can speak multiple languages fluently. We are very lucky that most people today can speak English so that we can communicate with people from around the world.
I also have so much respect for people who can speak more than one language. It makes it easier for communication especially when you are in a different environment like in your case, you had to speak some little Spanish even though you butchered it along the way but the people were able to understand you. Also, we are privileged to have English as a universal language because it enables everyone around the world to communicate effectively.
I both envy and admire those who are able to speak more than one language fluently. I also agree with the idea that being able to speak English, a language that is known around the world, is a privilege.
I take for granted the privilege I have to speak [American] English as my native language but I have seen the benefits of speaking more than one language; perhaps the opportunities of having a deeper connection as far as my interactions go and my openness to new cultural references/nuances.
What an unfortunate place for a shortcut, but at least you made it! I always dream of spending my summer learning another language, as I only know English, but I have never followed through with it. Reading from your experience makes me realize how much importance and opportunities it provides! Thanks for sharing your story.
Do you notice a common thread between bilingual people or was it just seemingly random? Like were they mostly youth or business people? This last weekend I was struck with how much I don’t know Spanish and I applaud you for diving in the deep end.
That is a great observation, how lucky we are that people around the world speak our language. We take it for granted, living in such a large country with virtually no necessity for a second language. I know that I myself would be in trouble if I were forced to communicate with local people in Mexico. Also, the wandering into an adult film store must have been quite awkward, but it sounds hilarious!
I really wish that I could have learned Spanish growing up because many of my family members speak it fluently and for some it is their first language. However you have given me hope that it is possible to become bilingual or at least learn parts of the language later on in life even though with age it becomes much more difficult in my opinion. I also wonder if total emersion in the language is even possible in most towns and cities due the fact that many speak English. One of my good friends said when he was learning Russian, it was much easier to do so while in Irkutsk compared to his stay in Moscow due to the fact that very few people spoke English
In many ways English is the universal business language and I think sometimes we take for granted the fact that much of the rest of the world learns English as a necessity for more opportunities as Ada explained above. Thank you for sharing your experiences thus far!
What a great article, we tend to forget that many places in the world speak English. When I visited Mexico it was amazing how many locals knew English! Its great that you know Spanish, I wish I was bilingual in another language!
That is some really good insight! I too, have experienced the difficulties of trying to learn another language and realize the amount of effort it requires. People who are multilingual are truly talented people.
I agree with you that it is nice for those who know two languages. Even though English is not my native language, I am sad to say that I have little knowledge of my native language, Hmong. It’s hard for me to communicate with my relatives because I only know English and they only know how to speak Hmong. So all my conversations with them would end in confusion and frustration. Moving on, I’m glad to hear that you were able to use your Spanish and English to help get you and your group back to the market.
I understand how difficult it can be speaking with someone who doesn’t have English as their first and fluent language. It’s nice that they tried to accommodate you so you could understand though! I think that this says something with people’s innate tendencies to communicate with others.
I speak two languages shona and english. However, shona is only spoken in Zimbabwe therefore, to add to some of the comments, if you speak a language that is spoken in more than one country then that is a thumbs up.
In your quote, “This experience made me realize how incredibly terrifying it must be to arrive in a country of which you don’t speak the language and no one can understand you.” Made me really think what it must be like to not have anyone able to understand you. I can only empathize with how frustrating this may be for some people especially when the situation needs understanding and communication. I’m happy to hear you were able to use your ability to speak two languages to get back to where you needed to be. This article really emphasizes the importance of communication, privilege, and understanding.
I like your humor. This reminds me of when I traveled to Vienna, Austria. My experience was slightly different than yours, though. I was very eager to speak in German and practice the submersion. However, in our location, every time I would start a conversation in German, they immediately knew I was American and switched straight to English. For me, I would ask them to speak in German even though I could barely understand them, I kind of like the excitement. I think people who make a genuine effort to learn the culture are more respected by the locals as well.
I could only imagine how hard that would be. I can sort of kind of speak Spanish but I don’t think I would have been able to find my way back to the market at all. Did a lot of the people there speak English and was it pretty fluent because I know that English is a major language in a lot of countries around the world, so I was just curious. Anyway keep on keeping on.
Reading this makes me think that we should be thankful that some places around the world are learning English but besides that, that we are trying to learn there’s as well. Which looks like came in handy for you and your group. Do you think you met more people that only knew Spanish or did they know some English?
I have one question and that is how many people there did speak English? And if they did how well. But I still can’y imagine how hard that would be and also such a tough situation you were in.
Speaking more than one language opens a lot of doors. It gives you the chance of meeting new people and exploring new places.I speak fluently english and spanish, and know some intermediate french. Is amazing how much you open your horizons and how you interact with people when you learn from other cultures. Every time I travel to other countries I try to use their language and try to immerse and truly experience what a country can offer.
Thanks, everyone, for all of the wonderful comments. For everyone who asked it seemed that people who lived closer to cities, who wore western style clothing, who had jobs in the cities are the ones who knew some English. It was the artisans, the poor, those who lived in rural communities who barely knew any English. I did not meet anyone completely fluent in English but we stayed and visited with families in poverty. I did meet a woman who did not know any English or Spanish, but rather spoke a native Mayan language if I remember correctly. I was completely taken by surprise that she didn’t know Spanish but there are more languages out there than I think I ever realized.
When I went to Mexico last spring, I had to translate for my mom a lot. I spoke more Spanish there than my 4 years of high school Spanish combined. However I never believe people when they said use it or lose it, and now I can barely read it.
I bet it was an amazing experience going to Mexico. I can’t imagine being lost in another country with a different language. Luckily everything worked out for you guys though.
Although you found out the hard way that being around people who speak a different language is quite difficult, I was happy to see how they were patient with you and somewhat helpful. While taking my Spanish courses in high school, my teacher always seemed to stress that no matter how much you learn from the books, the native Spanish-speaking people will always be coming up with new slang words that can be hard to understand and learn.
When i first started college i wanted a spanish minor like you also! And after taking five years of spanish, i still feel as though i know little to nothing. That must have been quite the experience for you, traveling in a new country seems like it would be one of the hardest things to do! Great article!
I do think people who speak more than one language are very lucky as well. They are able to understand an entire different culture from the one they have known or have grown up in. Many people take for granted the language classes in college and high school and they seem to take one to get an easy A. If more people took language classes with the intent on going to a country someday that spoke that language, people would appreciate the opportunity given to them more.
Speaking Spanish in a part of the world where everyone speaks it is so much different than just speaking it in a class. But by reading your article, there is still time for everyone to learn a new language or get better and a seconds language that they already know. Reading about your account of Mexico makes me want to travel there one day. I really enjoyed reading your article.
Thank you for sharing. I have a friend who is fluent in 4 different languages and English is her third language. When she first came her I learned what she was trying to say better than others so I helped her learn more english. I have taken sign language and I never really thought I would ever have to actually use it with anyone until my uber driver was deaf. When I signed to him he was so happy and although I do not know a lot of sign I was able to find a way to communicate with him. I thought this was a really interesting article to read.