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Use it or loose it. And a question of etiquette

Languages I’ve tasted:

  • Spanish (4 years in High School, a couple of years at college, lived in the Spanish dorm a year)
  • Hungarian (Magyar – felt comfortable enough with the basics that I wanted to travel to Budapest on my own)
  • American Sign Language (some classes in college, hung out at TN school for the Deaf)
  • and I can say "Hello" in Arabic. (I said Arabic online! Alert Homeland Security!)

In college, I used to joke that if I could say "Hello" and "I love you" in every language that I’d never sleep alone. I made a good go of it too. Even that part about learning "hello" and "I love you".

My sign language is weird because I was trying to learn ASL but because I was hearing, the kids at TSD wanted to use signed English with me. Despite my pidgon sign, I was comfortable enough to take orders from the deaf and hard of hearing at a Shoney’s restaurant where I worked right out of college. Now I can’t even talk to my wife (but what does that have to do with sign language?). Through the University and working at The Foreign Language Division of The Learning Company, I also gained exposure to French, Japanese, Russian, German and Italian but not enough to claim any knowledge.

So, My question of etiquette: When I bump into someone Hispanic, I always address them in English. Sometimes I get that blank look that I would give if I were being addressed by someone not speaking English; you know, that agast, expressionless face as your mind reels thorough the relatively small number of words you may have in hopes that something rings a bell. My Spanish is not good enough to strike up a conversation but I can still make some appropriate greetings. What is appropriate? Assume they speak Spanish and say, "¡Buenos días!"? Ask if they speak Spanish, "¿Habla español?" Or just stick to the uncomfortable smile, head nod and hesitant wave?

I don’t hesitate to talk to anyone. My inclination is to speak in Spanish. Perhaps my vocabulary will return!

2 thoughts on “Use it or loose it. And a question of etiquette

  1. I would address them in English first and if they give you the blank stare, quickly rephrase in Spanish. If you assume they know Spanish and they don’t, it could be awkward.

  2. Oh yes! My question was for after the blank stare.

    I wish I could take some language classes. I’d love to have some fluency in Spanish, ASL and Magyar. I would have never expected to have an opportunity to use Hungarian but years ago while traveling in California I had lunch with a group of people and was pleasantly surprised that one of the people at the table was struggling with English. Her native language? Hungarian! Unfortunately mine was so long forgotten that all I could say was “Happy Birthday” and “Thank you.”

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