What does one do when they just can’t speak the language? It’s a common theme that I’ve documented, particularly throughout my time in Spain. It’s an interesting question when you put your mind to it. One can attempt to communicate on a variety of different levels. Most of these inevitably become tiresome for either party and the “conversation” tracks along at a dreadfully slow pace before the patience is exhausted and it abruptly ends.
Being a native English speaker, the problem is generally avoidable no matter where you travel. Hostels or hotels will, for the most part, attempt to accommodate the English speakers and make them feel welcome.
Restaurants or places of customer services are manageable as it’s always possible to just point at the item that is desired. But when it comes to standard conversation this is not the case.
Traveling via Couchsurfing is different. As stated many times before, I Couchsurf to meet the people. They are my window into the culture of the land and when I can converse with them and compare opinions on different topics it’s a great way to understand the culture and to perhaps learn a thing or two.
So what happens when you stay with a Couchsurfer that just can’t really speak your language and, more importantly, you can’t speak theirs? This is something that I hadn’t faced to this point in my extensive Couchsurfing history. The first three years was almost purely hosting and so it involved meeting people who had already spent some time in Australia and could therefore speak a high enough level to discuss some things. Now here in Europe, I’ve been “lucky” enough to have been hosted by people who can speak English generally well and if not, it would have been in France where I can adequately hold a conversation in the French language.
Portugal proved to be easy for an English traveler and Kurro, my first true Spanish host, also helped me out by speaking good English. It was not until I sent a Couchrequest to Lucía in Málaga that I was to experience this.
Lucía was from Chile and was studying in Málaga. She accepted my request but forewarned that she did not speak English very well. I have been curious for some time to know what such an experience would be like so I went ahead with the proposal anyway.
When we met it became evident that indeed communication would be tough. Without doubt, her English was miles above my inexistent Spanish but it’s fair to say that it was basic. As I’ve found, the Spanish aren’t the best at English and South Americans have the reputation of being even worse.
Lucía lived with two housemates. Flo, another Chilean girl who’s English was below that of Lucía if anything and Rodrigo. Rodrigo was from Uruguay and he could actually speak a very good level of English. He had spent some time traveling around the UK and we could communicate at a very high level. I was happy to be able to have a conversation with him one morning over breakfast about the political state in Uruguay that was very fascinating to learn.
Rodrigo acted as the interpreter between us and so the household wasn’t truly a non-communicative one. For the most part, we were able to communicate together, without really being able to discuss advanced issues. But one night in particular really hit hard. They were going to a beach party with their university friends and invited me to come along. They informed me that they would be understanding if I would prefer to stay home due to the Spanish thing but, as is my philosophy while traveling, I thought it’s best to take a chance. I had heard that the party would be organised by two Swedes with other nationalities there also and I figured that there would be an English avenue.
I was completely wrong.
After greeting the various people of the party the conversation immediately switched to Spanish. They all seemed perfectly fluent at it and I can’t blame them for wanting to use it, as that was the primary reason of them being here in Málaga in the first place. I was surprised to find that even the French girl, after having a brief conversation in French with her, wanted to switch back to Spanish and talk with the others. French will typically jump at the opportunity to speak their native language, and I somehow managed to find one of the few on earth that didn’t.
It left me in a kind of uncomfortable situation, and it’s one that I’ve been wrestling with for years. I remember the first time I was out of an English speaking environment, studying in Montréal in 2008. Montréal is an almost perfectly bilingual city so I was able to go around speaking English without troubles. One night we went to a bar with some friends and some of their friends. Almost the entire night they spoke French, and I sat there listening to something I couldn’t even comprehend. I didn’t understand it. They knew I couldn’t speak French and they could all speak English. I sat there looking unsociable the entire not not contributing anything to the conversation. But how could I have contributed when I didn’t even know what the current topic was? I didn’t know whether to feel frustrated at them or not. It is their mother tongue after all, and perhaps it’s more my responsibility to learn their language than it is theirs to allow me to fit in.
Now, five years later, I found myself in a strikingly similar scenario. Yet not. This one was more understandable. There were Spanish and South Americans here who could not speak English. So if the conversation were to turn English purely for the sake of allowing me to understand, it would not be omitting those members. There would then be native Spanish speakers who would not be able to follow a conversation in Spain.
I didn’t feel as frustrated then as I did that night in Montréal. Perhaps it’s a sign that I’ve learned to live with it a bit more or perhaps it meant it was a more justified scenario as explained just before. I didn’t feel frustrated, but equally I didn’t want to be there. It wasn’t fun for me. At one part they formed a large circle and played a categories game. I didn’t participate and, somewhat symbolically sat slightly outside of the circle looking in.
As is standard in Spain, the night went until four of five in the morning but it felt like it would never end. My longings to return to France grew stronger than ever and it seemed a world away.
Lucía and her housemates were friendly. At the end of the day they provided a roof over my head and were kind to me. But the experience made me question the value of Couchsurfing with people that you can’t clearly communicate with. What did I learn about Spain and it’s culture on that night on the beach?
I learned that in Spain they may not necessarily go out of their way to help you fit in. And I learned just how hard it must be for non English speakers to travel and be expected to speak English at a minimum.
I gained that appreciation, at least.