What’s That You Say? Language and Travel

Flagging down a cab in Athens is hard work. Driver’s merely slow down as they approach you, lowering their windows to hear what destination you’re yelling out. If they feel like going there, they may stop and let you in. Otherwise they just keep on rolling. So on one of the first days I’d ventured down into the city by myself after I moved to Athens, I was loathe to get out of the cab I was in even though the driver couldn’t understand me and I couldn’t understand him.

He knew the neighborhood I wanted to go to, but he didn’t know exactly where Athens College was, so he needed me to direct him. He didn’t understand English, and my Greek was still so minimal it didn’t exceed far beyond “thank you” and “Do you speak English”. Signaling wasn’t getting us far, and you could feel the frustration building up in the cab. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, the cab driver asked “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”

Suddenly everything was fine. We both spoke German. I quickly gave him directions, which he easily understood, and then we set to talking about how both of us had come to know German. He reminisced about the years he’d spent there, regaling me with stories all the way to my house. It was a moment of serendipity.

On our upcoming trip, Jeff and I are going to land in many places where our language skills won’t extend far beyond the phrases back in our guidebook. We’ll do our best to learn those, so that while we won’t be able to carry on a conversation in the language of our host nation, we will be able to approach its citizens with at least a greeting in their native tongue. We are fortunate that our mother language is perhaps the one most useful around the world, but we have to realize that there will still be many places where people do not speak it, nor should we expect them to. But if we’re willing to risk bad pronunciation and terrible accents in attempts to speak the language of the country we’re in, we believe that people will be more open to helping us, more willing to find us someone who does speak our language, more likely to try their nonnative-English out on us. This will probably be the best we can do in Southeast Asia and Africa, where we’ll encounter multiple languages in relatively short periods of times.

But since we will be spending five months in the Spanish-speaking countries of Central and South America (Portuguese-speaking Brazil the lone exception), just the basics isn’t going to cut it. Thus Jeff and I have made the first specific itinerary decision. We’re going to spend the first couple of weeks our trip learning Spanish at an intensive language school in Nicaragua. Jeff, who has a solid knowledge already, will take advanced level classes, while I, my Spanish limited to the few podcasts I’ve been able to get through, will work at a more elementary level.

Why Nicaragua, you ask? Well, Nicaragua has been a hopeful destination on our itinerary for some time. Jeff was able to spend some time there in high school and is eager to return and show me around. Additionally, Nicaragua is very inexpensive, and there are many respected schools in the country. Offered on a weekly basis, the classes are usually 4 hours per day with group size limited to 1-4 people. It’s a total immersion experience with the classes conducted entirely in Spanish. For accommodations, schools offer home stays, which Jeff and I are eager to take advantage of. Not only will a home stay give us an opportunity to practice our Spanish in everyday situations, a home stay will also give us insight into the daily life of Nicaraguans.

While we haven’t yet picked a school, we’re leaning toward Granada as our base. Granada is supposed to be a lovely city, so we’ll have things to do in our off-class hours. It’s also conveniently located near other places we want to visit. We’re also considering doing one week of language classes in one place and one in another, but that’s just an idea we’re tossing around at this point. Here are links to two schools in Granada that have gotten good reviews from other travelers and seem to offer what we’re looking for: One on One Tutoring and Casa Xalteva.

Hopefully after a bit of study at one of these schools, I’ll have the basics down and be better tuned to pick up more of the language as we travel. It’ll certainly be nice to be able to have conversations that are a little more interesting than “Hello. Where is the toilet? Thank you.” Though I can’t say for certain that there’s any more useful conversation than that.

4 thoughts on “What’s That You Say? Language and Travel”

  1. English, the universal language…even in places yet unknown that lie outside our solar system. Thank goodness, because after a trip light years away I will not have the patience to learn a new language.

  2. That sounds like such a great way to learn a language. To be totally immersed in it and then spend the next five months using and improving on what you’ve learned. I want to learn Russian and have tried the Rosetta Stone Program. I’ve learned a few phrases and numbers and stuff, but there’s only so much you can get from a computer program and I would love to be able to learn the way you guys are!

  3. At first I wondered why anyone would want to take classes on vacation, but then I realized, and after reading your blog, just vacationing for a whole year could be rather ho-hum. SO doing something like this, while mainting the fun and a very new experience, sounds awesome.

    You are your ideas. Always a surprise.

  4. Don’t miss out on the “Laguna de Apoyo” area near Granada when you are there. Shuttles leave Hostel Oasis daily for a beautiful lake filled volcano crater and perfect place to take a break for a few days after your language classes. Crater’s Edge or The Monkey Hut are the places to stay on the lake.

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