“So, you want Guanajuato? I don’t really know Teatro Principal. That in El Centro?” a Mexican cab driver probably said. I couldn’t be sure – I don’t, as it turns out, speak Spanish, but this was the closest guess I had to the question he proposed to me. It is equally as possible he was asking me about my thoughts on the weather, or on Mexican politics, or if I liked squash, vegetable or sport.
“Yes,” I said, feeling like an idiot. What a dumb, wretched Gringo I was. Couldn’t I even try? He wasn’t asking for extemporaneous speeches on Russian history.
“Ne,” I yelped, trying to cover my tracks. The man squinted into his rear-view at me. He knew enough English to know the word ‘yes’, and knew enough human to interpret my nod. He did not know what to make of my profuse sweating, my growing anxiety, or my next few statements. “Sorry, I mean oui. Er… kha. Or… maybe… sí? Sí.”
As a matter of base-level respect, I always try to learn a little of the local tongue whenever I travel. Vicious linguistic imperialism affords me a lot of ease and comfort while on the road, and in most countries I can frolic easily with my native English. Centuries of icky history mean that my language is widely spoken, or at least widely recognized, and if I really didn’t feel like trying, I don’t have to. This, if anything, makes me want to try harder to learn a few things, even if it is the miniscule, marble-mouthed enunciation of “thank you” in Thai. With my words I show respect, and I also seem to imply nervous apology for all that brutal colonialism stuff.
Of course, sometimes the bon mots that I slave over in Mandarin or German or Hindi don’t always rush to my lips. Work has gone into acquiring these words, these nods of the head. I’ve studied, I’ve watched pronunciation videos, I’ve stood in front of the mirror and tried to make sure I don’t look like a boorish goon yelping out my phrasebook Vietnamese. But context is key, and sometimes the moment saps all the words I’ve learned. I’ve been on a plane for too long, have been wedged into the back of a bus next to the flatulent rump of a water buffalo, or am crawling with various intestinal worms. My brain slows, and all of the pithy, brilliant little things I’ve learned seem far away and impossible to reach. They’re up on a high shelf and I’m suddenly five.
What do they speak again? my brain frantically sputters. I know vaguely where I am in the world, can theoretically detect the mad morphemes flowing from my interlocutor’s mouth. But suddenly all the words I learned fall away. Tiredness or confusion or brief psychosis strikes me mute. Language becomes an eight-dimensional fractal pattern and I bleat like a not-particularly-clever goat.
I stammer and sweat. After some minutes, my brain finally blurts the first words in any foreign language it can think of. Swahili. Korean. Dutch. Any language will do, perhaps even more than one, because the waiter is getting impatient and looks like he’s judging me.
It is a dullard heuristic, a brain shortcut identifying essentially all speakers of your not-main language as speakers of Foreign Language. It all sounds different, certainly: tones and phonemes and clicks and inflections, swoops and dives and climbs that have as little resemblance to one another as they do to your own. They all look different as well, lines becoming swooshes, dots turning to dashes, circles into squares. In theory, your brain recognizes all of these other languages as distinct, and beautiful, and fascinating, and worthy of study and respect and preservation. But in practice, with the sun beating down, with the decision of how many whole fish to buy looming over you, the lines can blur. Distinctions fade away. The brain gets a little farty. It’s not my language, so it’s all not-my-language, right?
In India, whenever my English and my hilariously poor Malayalam would fail me, there would be some niggling part of my brain telling me to just give Korean a shot. Maybe, just maybe, this long-suffering taxi driver plying the routes in Varkala speaks a little of that good, old-fashioned Korean? I stop myself short, but only barely. It takes everything I have in will-power to stop my mouth from just attempting to prattle on the directions in yet another language that the driver doesn’t speak, because it thinks that hey, maybe, just maybe, it will work. It’s a last-ditch effort, a Hail Mary pass of linguistics, and it will probably only make this driver’s day all the worse.
It’s a shrug of the shoulders, a clenched-teeth apology. “This is the only other thing I’ve got. Maybe it’ll work? No?” Facing down the language barrier, it’s the step before you just throw yourself to the ground and begin weeping openly into the dirt. I can speak Korean to people who have no coping skills for someone yammering at them in English and then Korean, or I can just go back home and maybe sit in a dark closet.
And this Ur-not-my-language is not a staid, consistent thing, either. I remember when I moved to Korea, and how my impulse was to constantly and endlessly answer questions in French. I knew, certainly, that French was even less likely to be received and understood than my English, but my brain kept believing the attempt was worthwhile. That if English was not doing the trick, then trying another language was at least something to try–a show of effort in the face of adversity. If it didn’t work, then at least I could prove I was not some monolingual Neanderthal, inheritor of English the language and also English the language’s sense of proprietorial creepiness over the whole planet. I promise I’m not a linguistic imperialist! I seem to imply every time I blurt out my French or my Korean. It’s just that I really need a bathroom and I haven’t gotten to that page of the phrasebook yet.
And while it often lacks the desired effect of actual communication, switching to your default second language can often confuse interlocutors enough to move to the blessed bridge of body language. When confronted with you and your dumb monolingualism, another person and their own single language will try to communicate past each other, will keep fighting valiantly, will hope that the other will simply succumb and suddenly acquire the basic structure of Cantonese or Portuguese. But once you go through a few words in an extra language that makes no sense to one another, you start to realize you’re screwed. You stop talking and you start to communicate.