by Ernest Barteldes
If there is one thing I learned in almost a decade in New York (has it really been this long?) is that one should never assume anything about where people come from, what their background might be and specially the languages they speak.
Especially that last one – you never know who can understand what you are saying or not.
I got my first taste of that in the summer of 2001. I was at a downtown Duane Reade with my then-wife looking at a few things. She asked me to check the price for what I believe was lipstick, and I told her – in Portuguese, which I speak fluently – that there was a lady in front of me (I used the term ‘senhora,’ which is nice and proper). The lady turned around, smiled and left the aisle. A few seconds later, she returned and said – in Portuguese – that ‘these other ones were on sale.’ Now what if I had used an impolite term then?
At another occasion in Queens, I was standing in line at a local coffee shop as I waited for my turn to get a cup of Joe. Behind me were two very chatty Spanish-speaking girls. At one point, one asked, “What are you going to have?” and the other responded. “I don’t know. I can’t see with that idiot blocking my view.” Even with my passable Castilian, I knew they were talking about me, so I turned around and said, “who are you calling an idiot?” Apparently they never realized that a Gringo-looking guy like me could understand them.
More recently, my wife Renata and I were at a reception at Americas Society, a non-profit organization that promotes the culture of the American continent. I was talking (in Spanish) with a Cuban writer I had previously met at a PEN event a few years back, and with him was a Venezuelan journalist. When Renata approached us, we immediately switched to English, and then the journalist asked her where she was from, and when she replied “Poland,” he began talking in her language, to the surprise of everyone in the group – he had lived in Warsaw for five years.
Some of these surprises come in the classroom as well. I used to teach an ESL class where the dominant first language was Spanish. The students came from countries as diverse as Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic, and there was this sole Korean student there. Being this a low-intermediate group, the students would often speak in their native language, and I would ask them not to. Then I had a ‘brilliant’ idea: “Class, please don’t speak in your language – Jong-Min cannot understand you. But then he turned around and responded – in fluent Spanish – ‘yes, I can.”
Turns out he had lived in Argentina for almost a decade. Now how would I have known that!