“Es la primera vez que has estado aquí?” Is this your first time here?
“En esta clase, sí.”
My spin instructor suddenly hesitated before responding. Yep, there it was: The Accent. I might as well have had a flashing marquee above my head: THIS GIRL IS NOT FROM HERE.
“English?” he guesses.
I live in a town with a lot of British people. As a result, all of us non-Mediterranean-looking English speakers are easily interchangeable among the locals. When people refer to me as “la chica inglesa” because they can’t remember my name, I’m never sure if they mean it as “the girl from England” (false) or “the girl who speaks/teaches English” (true).
“Soy de los Estados Unidos, pero hablo español.”
“I speak English for you.”
And that he did throughout the whole class, repeating every command in English: “Arriba – get up! Adelante – forward!” At first I felt a little weird about the extra attention being called to me, even though I knew he meant well. It wasn’t until after I’d left the gym that I realized that it was an example of how incredibly privileged I am to speak English as my first language.
I can’t imagine the reverse happening in the US. Sure, in some parts of the Southwest you could probably find fitness classes en español. Even in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, I’m sure my high school Spanish teacher, who also teaches group fitness, would jump at the chance to give a bilingual class if a hispanohablante were to show up (hola Sra. H!). But for the most part, the American attitude seems to be “speak English or GTFO,” never mind the fact that we have no official language.
I’ve never lived in another English-speaking country, so I can only speak for the US, but Americans seem to be largely of the opinion that knowing any language other than English is unnecessary. That’s a generalization, but it’s clear that the necessity of language education in the US is widely inconsistent: I didn’t start learning Spanish until my freshman year of high school (that’s around age 14 for the non-Yankees in the room), while other American students start learning languages earlier and yet others go through school without ever seeing the inside of a foreign language textbook. It all just depends on the school system where you live.
We go through life hearing that English is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world (not untrue) and that “everybody speaks it” in other countries. I will say that I’ve actually been surprised at the quantity of English words that permeate everyday life here in Spain: you park your car in the parking, remote controls have on/off labels, you can order a sándwich for lunch and use a tablet instead of a computer. And the truth is that we Anglophones have a much easier time finding someone abroad who speaks our language than a native speaker of, say, Hungarian or Thai. English is even used as the common language between people from different countries: I know a Spanish man here in my town whose company often does business with a firm in the Netherlands, and he told me that when he speaks with his Dutch counterparts, the language used is always English.
But just because we have the absolute privilege (yes, privilege!) of speaking one of the most useful languages in the world, that doesn’t mean we can expect our fellow citizens of the world to speak it with us – nor should we. If we have the audacity to tell visitors to the US to either “learn English or get out,” despite (I repeat) having no official language on the national level, we certainly have no room to talk (pun intended?) when we go abroad and find ourselves in the midst of people speaking an unfamiliar tongue.
Unfortunately, not everyone seems to get it. I’ve seen fellow auxiliares pitching a fit online because a store owner in Madrid couldn’t answer their question in English. I’ve had the even more cringeworthy experience of being among other Americans who insist on switching to Louder & Slower English when it’s abundantly clear that they weren’t understood the first time. Could you imagine how people would react in the US if someone came up and started shouting in their face in Spanish or Arabic or French, then got angry when the other person didn’t understand?
The good thing about language is that a little bit goes a long way. Hello, please, thank you, excuse me, and do you speak English or Spanish? My [insert local language here] isn’t so good are the general phrases I try to learn when I travel to a new place. I’ve learned that most people are more than happy to take the time to help you, either by speaking English or pointing you in the direction of someone who can, if you at least try and make an effort in the local language first.
Being in a country where you don’t speak the language (or speak it well) feels a lot like being a little kid at the adults’ table. It’s an overwhelming feeling of being helpless due to your lack of understanding. You’ll feel stupid a lot of the time. I had to basically resort to interpretive dance to offer my seat on the tram to an elderly woman in the former East Germany, and I have a feeling I’ll be interpretively dancing my way through Prague next week (Some Czech I Think I Know: “pilsner,” and that’s about it) (but knowing how to order beer is important, right?).
It’s easy to get caught up in what feels safe, but stepping outside the proverbial comfort zone of English can open the door to so many wonderful opportunities. A little bit of humility and a willingness to learn can take us far (literally – the greater possibility of travel is just one of the perks of multilingualism!).
And if words fail you and you need to ask someone (politely) if they speak English, that’s okay – just don’t be a cabrón about it.