Some Thoughts on Learning Foreign Languages

I’ve been very fortunate in my life to have been able to do quite a bit of foreign travel.  So much of history never makes it into your average history book, and you don’t appreciate this until you actually visit some of the places you read about to see for yourself.

Foreign travel also exposes you to other cultures, including languages.  I always try to learn as many words of the local language as I can, although sometimes this might be just a couple.   This is especially true in countries like Greece and Egypt; when you start messing with the alphabet, you tend to lose me.  But the locals always seem to appreciate my efforts.

But even knowing a few words can have interesting consequences. I travel to the Los Angeles area semi-regularly.  There are a lot of Hispanics working in service jobs, but there’s also an amazing diversity in Southern California and you can run into many different cultures.  For example, during a trip several years ago, I was being driven in a multi-passanger van from LAX to my hotel.  Since I was traveling by myself and the van was almost full by the time they got to me, I found myself sitting up front with the driver.  During our drive into Orange County, he was frequently talking on his cell phone.  I couldn’t help but hear and it didn’t sound like Spanish.  Then I realized he was talking in Arabic; I was able to recognize this courtesy of my trip to Egypt.  I only know a half dozen or so words in Arabic, but one of them is “thank you” (shukran).  So when he dropped me off at my hotel, I couldn’t resist thanking him in Arabic.

Without missing a beat, he replied “aafwan” (You’re welcome), but I imagine he spent the rest of the day wondering how much of his conversations I had heard… and understood!

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