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Breaking the Language Barrier: Where a Few Words Go a Long Way

By Rohan: For years I have told people that the single best part about the school system in which I was raised was the fact that learning a foreign language was compulsory. Not only is it such a marketable skill in today’s diverse workforce, but it also allows students as young as seven years old to connect with someplace miles away and understand the differences and similarities between another culture and their own.

Over the past five years, our family has been spending more time on international vacations than those that are limited by the boundaries of the United States. One question that always comes up in conversations with friends and family is managing the language barrier in other countries. Generally, we don’t have a problem, as many modern cities are so cosmopolitan to the point where nearly everybody you encounter speaks perfectly understandable English. Every now and again however, you are thrust into a situation where you must communicate with someone who only speaks the native language, and if you happen to know a few phrases, it can enhance the overall trip.

This summer, my family took a trip to Spain, focusing on Madrid and Barcelona. Having taken Spanish up until my fall semester of college, I was thrilled to be able to communicate with locals in their language. I’ll be honest, at first, my knowledge of the local tongue was more of a bragging right–it was like speaking in some sort of secret code. However as I conversed with city dwellers, business owners, cab drivers, and street performers; I realized the true value of knowing another language.

I’ve been to many cities in Europe, and although I thoroughly enjoyed my time in each one, I noticed that there seemed to be a boundary between the tourist and the local. It was a little sad to see, as the locals certainly did not want people to see them interacting with visitors and tourists did not feel comfortable talking to the people who called those cities home. By knowing a second language, it creates a sense of inclusion. The wall that separates the resident from the vacationer is shattered and you can begin to have real conversations. Topics are not restrained to the location of the nearest metro station or where the best coffee shop in a particular square is.

The best example of this came from a friendly taxi driver in Barcelona. We were trying to get from the Barceloneta beach to La Rambla (a popular shopping avenue located in the heart of the city) and wanted to avoid the oppressive heat. My mom and two family friends sat in the back while I sat in the passenger seat next to the driver.

He picked up on the fact that the people I was with did not speak Spanish, but I could speak fairly well. After complimenting me on my knowledge of the language, he began to tell me about how he always wanted to learn English and come to America because he thought it sounded beautiful. He left us with a popular joke in Spain–that although there are many beautiful women, the sound of their voice can spark an immediate red flag.

It’s been a month since our plane touched down in New York City, but I remember this man’s conversation in the front of the taxi just as vividly as the towering spires of La Sagrada Familia. The conversation we had was simple, genuine, and has given me all the more reason to ideally find myself back in Spain in my not-too-distant future.

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