Planning a visit to a foreign country is a motivating factor powerful enough to put those general plans to learn another language into motion.
As a tourist it makes most sense to focus on “tourist language” – the language most useful for those classic situations every tourist encounters. When I chose to acquire some “Spanish for tourists” before our trip to Spain, I didn’t see much difference between that and “beginner level language”. I thought that the knowledge I was acquiring would serve as a springboard for future studies.
Now that I have returned from spending a wonderful week in Spain, I believe I was mistaken.
At first I blessed every podcast I had listened to. Although we visited classic tourist places, in cities, the waiters in almost ALL of the restaurants we entered did not speak any English. One can tell when one is speaking to someone who does understand some English but prefers to respond in their native tongue or someone who really doesn’t know any English at all. My “tourist Spanish” really came in handy then. The context is clear, the possibilities are limited, we communicated. Of course, there were lots of surprises, as there always are when eating abroad! The fact that we figured out that a dish was good for my vegetarian husband and contained eggplant didn’t mean we had any idea of what we were getting… Part of the fun of travelling!
***Side note: Getting a menu with English in it didn’t always mean we could understand it either. In one Chinese restaurant there was a dish labeled “noodles with three delicious”!!! Turns out “delicious” refers to vegetables!
Outside, in the Spanish world that wasn’t a restaurant, I discovered that all the podcasts I had listened to led mainly to speaking not understanding. Which surprised me as I had thought that receptive skills come first. Take the simple issue of directions. I knew the words for “right, left, straight, up, down, far, near” and even “around here”. Nonetheless, after nicely asking in Spanish where something was, I couldn’t understand more of the directions we got in many situations, than my husband did from the hand movements. Often I couldn’t even discern the familiar words in the long stream of words that was the reply. By the way, switching to asking for direction in English in my strongest American accent didn’t help – the answer was invariaby a stream of Spanish. Thank goodness signs were easy to read!
By the end of a fascinating and wonderful trip I feel glad that I had invested in learning useful language for tourists as it really did help in various situations, but feel that there is an immense gulf between what I learned to any pretense I had that I was learning to understand Spanish.
Seems that “language for beginners” and “tourist language” don’t really overlap.