We had a friend from Florida visit us here in Costa Rica recently. She’s been a regular guest during our time down here—she loves travel, and Central America in particular. But it was her new husband’s first time in the country, even though he’s from Nicaragua, just to the north.
He doesn’t speak any English, although he does recognize a few words and phrases. She’s been learning Spanish for a couple of years but is far from fluent. My wife and I were skeptical before their arrival. How do they communicate, we wondered.
But when we were hanging out, we saw how they’ve made it work. She forgets words…mixes up verb tenses…and there is a lot of mispronunciation. But he’s patient, correcting her gently. And when he speaks to her it’s slow and clear.
They really do understand each other and they’ve come to love the little quirks in each other’s personalities.
It’s very touching to watch. And you can tell that as she learns more Spanish, and he learns more English, their relationship will only get richer.
I learned something else during their visit…something fundamental. You see, when our group was speaking English, I often turned to our friend’s husband to translate (I speak Spanish). A few times he would tell me, “I got it.”
Even though he doesn’t speak English, by hearing one of the few words he knows…reading the body language of the speaker…and knowing the context of the conversation…he could pick up at least the gist of what was said. Sometimes he was right on the money.
The lesson here applies to anyone learning a foreign language: You’re not starting from zero. We’re all human beings. We’ve had similar experiences in life. We have common ground. That’s true no matter where you are from. Plus, many aspects of communication are non-verbal.
We can draw on all of that as we talk to each other. And people who don’t speak each other’s language can make themselves understand. Of course, that’s only true to a point. Our shared human experience only provides us with a good base.
To really effectively communicate—especially if you plan to move abroad—you will have to study. Learn some key words and phrases at first…enough to have simple conversations with neighbors and shopkeepers. And then gradually expand your vocabulary. Soon you’ll be able to have meaningful conversations and really connect with your new neighbors.
The most important part of learning is practice. So don’t be afraid to get out there. Remember, you already understand—and can make yourself understood—more than you know.