On the Subject of Language



What is it about language that affects your perception of a people? In regaling others with tales of foreign lands, you find yourself pronouncing certain foods and locales with accents, often without consciously trying. While writing a guest post on language learning for adventuredaze.com, I got to thinking about how traveling makes you want to talk about people and places in accordance with the languages they speak.

If you’re a traveler, or have friends or family that have lived/studied/worked abroad (or just love to travel), you probably know where I’m coming from. I might refer to a Spanish city as “Seville” because it’s not too far from what the locals say; but I might also call it “(th)Sevilla,” because that is what the locals say. In the case of the latter, I’m not being pompous in my pronunciation, but rather attempting to portray a city, its people, and its language, in context. After all, isn’t it easier to bring to life the city of Se-vee-ya, rather than Se-ville?

Maybe it’s all in my head, but some words just don’t sound right when said in an accent far deviated from the word’s origin. The city of Algeciras, for example, sounds wrong (to me) when I try to say it any other way than my best effort at pronouncing the Spanish al-he-SEE-rahs. Not all-dju-SEE-rus, not AL-uh-SEE-ris, not al-huh-see-ROss. These different pronunciations may not appear drastically different from each other, but they certainly sound it.



I once spent two months in Italy, where spoke all of two words in English. Ok, that’s an exaggeration, but I truly didn’t speak much English that spring. (Read about my Italophile files here, here, here.) By the time I left to return home, I could follow most conversations in Italian; and although I couldn’t necessarily always contribute to conversations, I could at least laugh and react appropriately. Admittedly, the ramp-up was quicker because I’d picked up Rosetta Stone long before this trip; but even with that preparation, my language skills sometimes relied heavily on smiles, shrugs, and head nods.

Why am I telling you this? Because those two months might have been far less enjoyable had I not spoken some semblance of Italian. Just the little things –from ordering at a restaurant or asking for items at the store, to catching the right train or talking to people in a crowd– would have been that much more difficult…which might have detracted from my experience. But because I could understand what was going on around me, everything was enhancedly vivid. The colorful expressions to convey affection or frustration, the gestures that accompanied all conversations, the parolacce (swear words) requisite to any Italian’s vocabulary – all these facets of language contributed to the memories I still frequently recount.

People say I have a knack for languages; I feel I’d be doing myself (and the people whose country I’m visiting) a disservice if I didn’t employ this talent. It’s amazing how many connections you can make with just the language basics. Many fellow travelers will agree that just trying to speak the local language opens doors (literally and figuratively). Basic phrases have gotten me invited to party in Spanish apartments and stay at Costa Rican houses; they’ve resulted in Philippine market bargains and complimentary Turkish souvenirs; they’ve led to French escapades and Italian cooking lessons.

So if I ever tell you a story about il Carnevale di Venezia rather than the Carnival of Venice, I’m not being pompous; I feel I have a duty to represent a place close to my heart. (I bet a lot of travel advocates and cultural immersionists will side with me on this one.) Likewise, I’m not being pretentious if I greet a local Turkish bartender with “Selam! Nasılsınız?” – I’m simply trying to maintain my connection to (and the vestiges of my language skills for) a country, a culture that welcomed me like an old friend.

Now I won’t go as far pronouncing New Orleans as a resident might: the infamous naw-linz. And although I’m conscious about saying new OAR-linz, I also won’t call you out for saying new or-LEENz. Because despite striving to pronounce things correctly, I will undoubtedly butcher some other word, someday, somewhere. The important thing is that I’m trying. And learning. In a sense, you could say it’s my way of preserving memories, of reliving experiences, of respecting heritage.