We are currently in Playa del Carmen, Mexico taking immersion Spanish lessons and classes. Playa del Carmen is a tourist city south of Cancún. You might have heard of Cancún. It is a frequent port of call for cruise ships and a very popular Spring Break destination. Playa del Carmen is the more laid back neighbor, although a stroll on the Avienda Quinta next to the beach may put paid to the notion of quiet and laid back.
While my wife and I just spent 12 hours over 3 days speaking solely in Spanish with our instructor about a variety of topics ranging from how we met to the tortured life of Luis Miguel, nobody is going to think, upon hearing me speak my tortured Spanish, that I’m a native speaker. It’s obvious that I have about a year and a third of Duolingo under my belt and nothing more.
Still, whenever we meet native Mexicans and speak with them, by and large, they’re happy and pleased that we’re attempting to learn their language to be able to speak with them on their terms rather than on our terms. They are warm and welcoming, accepting our mistakes and gently guiding us on how to improve our speaking abilities.
Nobody has said “well, you’re in Mexico. Why haven’t you already learned Spanish? You’re in Mexico, so you should be speaking in Spanish.” That isn’t the conversation or the tone at all. It’s always warm and with gratitude that we’re making the attempt to speak with them in the language of the land rather than expecting that they know and speak English. We are guests in their country who appreciate that fact and want to be respectful to them by speaking (however horribly) in their own tongue.
Yet, to me, the contrast is stark compared to a lot of people in my own country, the United States, in their approach to immigrants and visitors.
Language learning is a continuum. A lot of immigrants who arrive in the U.S. do so knowing, at most, a handful of English words. They won’t learn the language overnight. Show me someone who learned any subject overnight, and you’ll be showing me a charlatan. But, if all I faced was scorn and condemnation when trying to speak someone else’s language, I would be hesitant, as well, to try to engage people in the future. I would attempt to fly under the radar and avoid conflict.
Immigrants to the U.S. probably have the same desire to learn English as my wife and I do to learn Spanish. The next time you encounter someone who struggles with the language, try to have some compassion and empathy. That will make their immersion experience much better and simplify their learning process. Who knows? You may learn something, too.