Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Foreign Language Compartment (of my brain)

My brain seems to have a compartment entitled “Not English”. Each new word acquisition, no matter the foreign language, gets filed in the same area. When it comes time to respond to someone on the spot, this filing system fails horribly. Imagine a disorganized, lower-level secretary under fire from the CEO to hand over the correct file immediately. Sometimes the frantically grabbed file is the correct one, and sometimes it’s a random assortment of mixed up language. This has given rise to several interesting, awkward, and entertaining moments.  One such moment is recounted below.


On the plane from Moscow to Amsterdam and then from Amsterdam to Barcelona, I silently practiced the little Spanish I knew … “Hola”, “Me llamo Kimberly”, “Donde esta el baƱo?”, “Mi Casa es su casa”,  “Si … you know, all the basics and essentials. So when I stepped into the airport in Barcelona, of course I forgot everything. Thanks to picture signs that pointed me in the right direction, I easily found my luggage and made my way to the taxi station. As I walked toward the front of the taxi line, I remembered that I had smartly written down the address of the hostel where I would be staying. I rummaged in my bag for the scrap of paper. Suddenly, my turn to jump in the next taxi had come. Fumbling with the scrap, I handed over my luggage and the address to the taxi driver without a word. My brain remained frozen. The taxi driver asked me a question in Spanish that I understood. Under immediate pressure to surge into action, the frozen and unorganized foreign language filing system of my brain lurched. The first words out of my mouth were, “Dah” followed 10 seconds later by a shaking of the head (signifying a quick thaw) and a lot less confident, “… uh, Si.” I had just come from Russia, so I tried to give myself a break. The taxi driver looked at me a bit strangely (perhaps with recognition of a failing foreign language filing system?), and we both silently got in the taxi. After a few strained minutes of silence, and after I had repeated the bit of Spanish I knew over and over in my head, I summoned up the courage to ask, “Habla ingles?” He responded with a great deal of relief, “Yes!” He explained that he did speak a bit of Spanish but not as comfortably as he spoke English. He was from Pakistan - I had not even considered that he wasn't from Spain. He then asked if I was Russian (because I had first spoken Russian to him). He apologized that he didn't speak Russian. I explained that I had spent a couple years in Moscow, but no I’m American. I speak English. As he drove me to the hostel, we chatted a bit more. I laughed to myself about my many false assumptions and the foreign language compartment of my brain.