The Value of Speaking the Language

Before I drove my first Green Tortoise trip into Baja I bought a Spanish-English dictionary. I reasoned that if I was going to be in charge of the trip to Mexico then I would need to be able to speak some Spanish. On my first day off south of the border I put my language skills to the test — I bought some beer.

Yo Hablo Español

I started with my dictionary. After looking up, then writing down and memorizing my speech, I next visited the Pacifico Deposito in Loretto to test my skills. I was met by a large Mexican man behind the counter with a curled black mustache who resembled pictures that I'd seen of Pancho Villa, the famous Mexican general. He stood looking at me with an expectant stare, but said nothing, waiting for me to start the conversation.

"Buenos dias, Senor", I began in my practiced Spanish, "Me necessimo tres cartones Pacifico. Envases medias y fria, por favor". ("Good day Sir. I need three cases of Pacifico. Medium bottles and cold please").

Pancho Villa regarded me for a moment and then a little smile crept underneath his prodigious mustache.

"Okay Jack" he said in perfect English, and he disappeared into the back room. He was back a moment later with three cases of beer.

"Three cases of ice cold Pacifico in medium bottles". Not wanting to give up on the game since I'd practiced, I continued in Spanish.

"Muchos gracias Señor. Quanto questo?". He told me the price in English and I paid.

On my way out he called out the shop doorway, "See you later, Jack!".

"Adios Señor!", I called back.

Even though I could have accomplished the same thing using English, I was happy I had taken the time to learn to do it in Spanish. I realized later that my whole transaction probably would have gone very differently if I hadn't.

Él No Habla Español

A few hours later as I was walking through town with some of the passengers from the bus I passed the same Deposito. Looking through the open door I could see a scene unfolding that made me stop and watch. Pancho Villa was behind the counter were I'd left him, only now he had three cruise ship passengers in the store looking for beer. They were all dressed in golf pants and knit shirts. One of them had a giant camcorder resting on one shoulder. The guy talking was clearly having a hard time communicating. He was pantomiming drinking from a bottle and saying repeatedly in English, "BEER. We need BEER.", as if saying it louder would make him understood.

Behind the counter, Pancho was playing dumb. He had his hand raised in the universal sign of not understanding and was saying in heavily accented Spanish, "No hablo inglés". The golfers kept pointing at the sign — which plainly read "cerveza" — but kept saying "beer". At one point Pancho caught sight of me watching and I think I detected a little twinkle in his eye — he seemed to like abusing these guys.

From then on I made a point to talk to passengers about trying to speak the language — especially the Americans. Many of them would get annoyed with me for suggesting it.

"They all speak English down here, so why bother?" one of them asked me.

The reason I thought they should 'bother' is because refusing to even attempt a basic 'hello' in someone's native tongue is both insulting and arrogant, and they may try to make your life difficult in return.

Me Gustan las Tortillas

A bit later in that trip I was planning on making tacos for dinner and wanted some authentic corn tortillas to go with the meal. Since I was in La Paz I went to the Mercado at the center of town and found the tortilleria (which every Mexican town of any size will have). Standing in line with the Mexican housewives I could see the ladies working the counter nudging each other and pointing at me. From what I could pick up from their comments I could tell that they thought I was confused by the difference between a tortilleria which makes and sells tortillas, and a taqueria, which makes ready to eat food, often using tortillas. When it came my turn I ordered the same way I had heard the Mexican women ahead of me order, which is by the kilo.

"Buenos Tardes. Tres kilos, por favor" ("Good Afternoon. Three kilos, please"), I asked.

The woman behind the counter was a little taken aback and said (again, in perfect English), "Wow, you really like tortillas!".

"Si, mi gusto tortillas!" I replied, rubbing my stomach.

Since I seemed to know what I was doing, I got very nice service and a smile from everyone behind the counter and a very full bag of hot, fresh tortillas. Participating in the rituals of shopping the Mercado was an additional benefit.

Soy el Feo Americano

Leaving the Tortilleria I walked through the rest of the Mercado. There I passed an American woman. She was trying to buy something from one of the vendors and was fuming and calling to each person that passed her, whether they were working or shopping, "Excuse me, but can I get some service here!?". To a person the entire mercado was ignoring her.

She was getting the silent treatment and she was angry about it. As I walked past I stopped and said very nicely, "Perhaps you could try saying, "Buenos Dias"?. She shot me a look that let me know she did not want any lip from me, so I left her to get angrier in English.

I knew why she was getting ignored, but it amazed me that she didn't. I imagined that she probably went back to her cruise ship that night telling everyone how evil and mean those Mexicans were to her. Yet I knew that if she'd found herself in the opposite situations, where a Mexican visiting America had assumed that calling out in Spanish would get service, I'm sure she would be incredulous that someone could be so arrogant.

Just because someone is in a position to help you does not mean that they have to help you.

Talking the Talk

I have traveled a bit for work, and always make a point of learning and using some of the language in any country I visit and especially with the people I am working with. Even though I have gone many places where I encountered people speaking English I found that they treated people who spoke a bit of their language differently. I have also had more than a few comments that they were surprised that an American made the effort to do so. I could reply that it is unfair to judge me by what they've experienced with other Americans, but I know that's a waste of time. I cannot control how they see Americans in general, but I can control how they see me.

This attitude extends to more than just language. It's easy for Americans to assume that people all over the world understand our language and our customs, but it's also arrogant, and arrogance is one of the worst approaches to use when meeting someone new. Whether a critical business connection or the person taking your money at the coffee shop, showing respect to everyone you meet is going to pay back many dividends beyond the simple respect that you show for others.