One of the hardest things about learning a new language is figuring out how to understand other people. Sure you may know the vocabulary and know how to conjugate verbs, but what do you do when someone asks you a question?
Inevitably they will speak very quickly, have an accent, and be mumbling all at the same time. What do you do? Do you:
B) Nod like you know what they are talking about
C) Say “sí” which is the only word that you can remember in the heat of the moment
D) Calmly and quickly answer their question
When we first arrived in Montevideo answers A, B, and C all described our efforts at communication. In preparation for all of our outings we would review the adventure-specific vocabulary we were likely to hear, but inevitably something would come up that we didn’t know.
The following are a few of our language experiences…
– The first week we were in Montevideo the lady at the check-out counter in the grocery store would say something when we arrived in front of her. Our confused faces and “No se, lo siento” (I don’t know, I’m sorry) would quiet her. We eventually deciphered her words as “tarjeta más?” and we eventually figured out that she was referring to their rewards card. We had never seen anyone using one of these cards which made it especially difficult to figure out.
– There is an ATM at the market that is enclosed in a little room. There is a card swipe on the wall that lets people in. I tried it on the way into the market one day and the door failed to open. So when I got to the check-out counter I tried to ask the lady if the ATM required a card to get into, but of course I momentarily forgot the word for “door” and, based on the incredulous look on her face, most probably ended up asking her if I needed a card to get money out of the ATM. Doh!
– When we stayed at a hotel in Buenos Aires, we were able to check-in completely in Spanish. On check-out, we were ready to do the same, but got derailed when the man asked us if we had consumed anything from the mini-bar. Neither Asa or I had ever heard the word for minibar (“frigobar” which really isn’t all that different) and got really confused. The bilingual man quickly realized we had no idea what he said and continued the entire check-out process in English.
– Our first week in Montevideo took us to the local panaderia (bakery). We went in with the desire for bread. We told them that we were learning spanish and that we wanted one of those, and pointed to what we wanted. Then we asked them what the word for it was… “baguette”. Go figure!
– When we first arrived in Montevideo we started frequenting a local chivitos restaurant. What made this place problematic for us is that they don’t have a menu. The first time we went there, we were accompanied by some spanish speaking friends who ordered for us. The second time we went on our own was fairly comical. We ordered chivitos how we wanted them (we remembered that part) and then we ordered “dos papas fritas”. The waitress looked at us like we each had three heads. Then she smiled and asked, “dos porciones de papas fritas?”.
– Tiqui Taca is the local chivitos place near our new Pocitos apartment. They have a special: buy three chivitos and get one order of french fries for free. So we went in and ordered our sandwiches and two portions of french fries. Obviously the man knew we were not from around here and said, “uno es un regalo… 1 FREE!”, practically yelling the english part. Hilarious!
– When Asa and I had to get yellow fever shots I had a fairly humorous and frustrating phone call that ended in the necessity of speaking to someone in english. Check out a recounting of that adventure here.
There have been many more awkward and embarrassing language moments, but for the most part people are very nice. Telling people that you are learning a new language is usually really helpful. Most people, upon learning that, will speak more slowly and try and help with words you may be trying (but failing) to say. They are usually interested in where you are from and how you like Montevideo.
If you really get into a bind, there is usually someone around that speaks English. All the schools in Montevideo now teach English as part of the curriculum. So when in doubt, seek out a young person. Most of the older generation doesn’t know any english.
Just like in many countries, locals seem to appreciate us trying to speak in their native language no matter how much we botch it!