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Baby Steps with Long Strides

Take the time to learn another language

PANAMA | Thursday, 16 July 2015 | Views [222]

At the unseasoned age of 22, I am blessed to be traveling to Latin America for my fourth time. Each of my trips has lasted longer than one month, so I am no stranger to the arduous process of adapting to another culture. People in this part of the world are not too accustomed to seeing someone like myself, a black “gringo”, choose to reside in their home countries, but by speaking the native language, I have been able to enjoy the most enriching experiences one could ever have abroad. 

I proudly do not fit the profile of a stereotypical tourist from the United States. I am a young, black female and American to the core, though my complexion allows me to blend in with the people of Panama and live my life relatively free of harassment. When thoroughly rehearsed, my Spanish could probably fool most native Panamanians. This has been such a humungous asset to me, so I cannot help but wonder why so many fair skinned travelers navigate Central and South America without making any genuine effort to learn the language.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “gringo”, it is a term used to refer to white people, though it is mostly applied to US citizens. The term has grown outside of its color barrier to include non-white persons as well. Gringo is now considered a non-derogatory word, though it can be used hatefully or interpreted as racist. Even though the term has lost its detestable sting “gringos,” specifically persons from the United States, are not often favored in Latin America. Though reports show that Latin America views the country of the United States of America favorably, I know from first hand experience that they may not feel the same way about its people. So why perpetuate the stereotype of an entitled “gringo” by not learning how to simply ask for a soda served in a glass without ice? (Translation: Puedo tomar un refresco en un vaso sin hielo?)

I am not insisting that you assimilate to a foreign culture at the expense of your your own values and cultural identity. Doing so does not necessarily mean sacrificing national pride or conforming to the standards of beauty and religion, among other things, held by a culture or country. It’s very possible to blend into and live within a society while still remaining an ambassador for your own culture.

There is also nothing wrong with looking like a tourist. It is completely acceptable to rock the gringo traveler’s pants found in most street markets and wear your party hostel’s shirt (I love my quantum-rainbow gringo pants and my Loki Hostel Bartender shirt). I’ll even admit I caved in and bought chicken nuggets from a McDonald’s restaurant at the bus terminal the other day; sometimes we all miss that greasy, satisfying “American” food. Though this may make us look bad and you may receive some judgmental looks from the locals, that’s all a part of staying true to your own identity. It perpetuates the notion that Americans are only interested in being American and have no desire to learn about the world. You can help reverse this understanding by displaying a serious effort to assimilate through learning the language.

I don’t at all consider myself a snob, but even I find myself rolling my eyes at all the American “valley” girls sloppily demanding cerveza at the hostel bar, or the fedora wearing bros taking pictures of Spanish women’s backsides because its such an enchanting sight. This makes the perpetrator, innocent bystanders like myself, and the whole nation seem crude.

It seems to me these people simply don’t see the benefits of learning the language, or they drastically underestimate how much locals appreciate the effort. In fact, in my first week in Panama, I have already received two taxi rides por gratis for conversing with the driver solely in Spanish.

For many people, taking on another language is too great of an inconvenience. It’s either too expensive, will take too much time, or, as many people believe, learning new languages is a younger man’s game. But is taking that time really a bigger burden than constantly living in fear of being cheated by your next cab driver or shop owner? More importantly, wouldn’t you like to garner the wisdom and perspective of the local citizens through genuine conversation thereby gaining a better understanding of the culture you chose to immerse yourself in in the first place?

Taking on another language can be equated to learning how to play a new instrument. It’s hard work, requires a major time-commitment, and people will think you’re a cooler person when it’s all said and done.

There have been myriad language-learning methods tested and debated among scholars and laymen alike, though I can report from experience that the secret to learning a language, whether it be your second, third or fourth, is this: practice, practice, practice. Unless you are a prodigy of some sort, you are going to have to immerse yourself in the work with a certain degree of passion. Building skills like this takes time. After all, the 17th season of the Pokémon series aired in the United States this past January, and Ash still isn’t a Pokémon master (and why has Pikachu not reached level infinity by now?).

Luckily for you, there are several free and effective services available to help you become a linguistic savant. Duolingo is a highly successful online program with a gamified design, which allows users to track both their own progress and that of friends through the lessons. Since most travelers are living on shoestring budgets as is, they appreciate the top-rated, free mobile app, found in various mobile stores. BBC Languages and Busuu are also popular, free, web-based options.

For professionals with that bottomless expense account, more costly interactive services include Rosetta Stone, Babbell and Rocket Languages Premium. Though these are typically beyond the young backpacker’s budget and require subscription packages, they have been proven to work wonders on short notice.

If you are still not convinced, please consider the following: Wouldn’t you expect someone traveling to your country to try and learn a few phrases? The language barrier is tolerable, but is it not terribly annoying?

I am reminded of an awkward encounter I had with my mother at the thrift store last month. The cashier, a Latina woman in her mid- to late-20s and more than a little wet behind the ears, spoke in English on par Consuela the Housekeeper from Family Guy. My mother, who is admittedly less well-traveled than myself, grows frustrated with her lacking English and asks, “How did you even get this far up without speaking English?” Even living adjacent to the highest El Salvadoran population in the United States, my mother was easily frustrated. While I imitated my favorite animal, the turtle, by drawing my head into my shirt and turning up the collar of my blouse to hide my embarrassment, I thought of every time I saw a Panamanian shop owner roll his or her eyes at the blonde girl wearing Hollister sweatpants yelling “HOW MUCH?” instead of asking, “Cuánto cuesta?”

I certainly don’t mean to offend, though I do hope this opens some of your eyes to just how much you limit yourself when you travel without learning any of the host’s language. It is both a disservice to yourself and the communities you visit when you fail to engage with the natives.  I contend that it is not enough to just be a tourist. We are obligated to be responsible nomads and contribute to the collective global growth of these communities, even if it just means talking to a local shop owner about politics or how he and his family live. If you fail to make a genuine effort to get to know the places you visit, and the people who occupy them, then it seems to me you are missing out on the true beauty of traveling. 

Tags: gringo, languages, latin america

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