Trying to Speak the Language in a Foreign Country

Posted in Europe, On the Ground, Spain

“Solo extra sopa, por favor.”

That’s what I told the cleaning lady at the NH EuroBuilding Hotel in Madrid when she came to turn down the room and asked if I needed anything else. If you speak Spanish, then you already know that I asked her for soup, not soap. She stared at me for a moment quizzically (guys, let’s start saying quizzically more — it’s an awesome word). Luckily, she figured out what I meant and reminded me that soap is actually “jabón,” which ironically sounds like the hybrid of jamon and jambon, which both mean ham in Spanish and French respectively. That’s equally the beauty and problem with foreign languages. So many are based on the same linguistic principles that make words sound alike (homophones!) but mean very different things and that means they can become easily confused by people who don’t speak the language on a regular basis — including schmucks like me.

While here for the opening of the hotel, I’m doing my best to use as much Spanish as I possibly can. Is this a self-indulgent act or do the native Spanish speakers respect my effort for even trying? I can’t figure it out. Conversely, when a Spanish-speaking person in the US tries to use English despite their very obvious limitations, I usually try to answer back in Spanish to put them at ease. Is that the right thing to do? I never know.

Trying to speak the language in a foreign country is a delicate tightrope act. Earlier today, I tried to ask a pharmacy clerk if they sold water bottles. I apparently phrased my question in such a way that she thought I was a native speaker. Score one for me and my various Spanish teachers! The problem, though, arose when she answered back in rapid fire Spanish. The word “agua” was in there, but so were many others and I had no idea how to make sense of it. I had to tuck my language tail and admit that my Spanish wasn’t very good and I had no idea what she said. She looked disappointed in me somehow. Not “you blew the game-winning field goal” disappointed, but more of a “I had such high hopes you, bearded man,” disappointed. Should I have just tried to ask in English and only used Spanish as a last resort? I don’t know what the true answer is. Do you?

I’ve thought about it all day and have come to a conclusion of sorts. My very loose guidelines are like this: if you know how to use the language of the country in which you’re currently standing, use those words. It’s their country and it’s your obligation to blend in as much as you can, as opposed to relying on them to cater to your linguistic skills. If you can’t function conversationally in the foreign language, do your best and let the other party know you’re trying but your skills are limited. That way, you’ve made the effort, which should hopefully be appreciated, but you’ve also introduced some humility into the situation at the same time. I think a little effort goes a long way in these situations and since you’re depending on the kindness of strangers, humility is an admirable quality.

Do you have rules about using the language of your travel destination? I want to know if you think I’m on point here or way off base.

P.S. The good news in all of this? I got tons of extra soap. Sadly, now I have a hankering for some soup, too.


Photo: Some rights reserved by faungg’s photo


  1. I took French in high school and college. A number of years later I was in Italy and kept mixing up Italian words with French. In a bakery my partner started laughing and apologized to the clerk. She just laughed. You do the best you can 🙂

  2. Rule of thumb is to greet people in their native language and converse in your native language.

    Show respect to others, but do not torture them.

  3. “it’s your obligation to blend in as much as you can”. Really? Isn’t part of the joy of travel in the differences? Attempts at local phrases are generally appreciated, but not expected nor an obligation.

    • I disagree. I think it’s incumbent upon you as the traveler to enjoy wherever you are without trying to make everyone around you cater to you. I’ve seen Americans abroad get angry when they’re in a foreign country and the person with whom they’re trying to communicate can’t understand them or speak English. That’s ludicrous.

  4. I am from Brazil, and I travel to the US every year. We speak portuguese over here, not spanish, and even though there are some similarities with both languages, I find very hard to understand americans trying to speak spanish (?) with me.

    My english is, actually, pretty good, so I have no trouble communicating and understanding what you guys are saying, but, as the author said, sometimes people try to “put me at ease” speaking in spanish, but that’s actually confusing – and embarrassing.

    If someone talks to me in english, or spanish, and I notice that they are not struggling, I’ll definitely speak the same language.

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