Foreign Language Immersion

The great thing about learning a foreign language while abroad is the opportunity for immersion. But such opportunities are disappearing fast. Everyone seems to speak some amount of English now, meaning an English speaker rarely has to use a foreign language to communicate. Locals, when confronted with such a horrendous rendition of their own language, will quickly switch to English if possible, if not for your sake, then for theirs.

It’s also often the case that no language is needed at all. You hand a written address to the taxi driver and they plug it into the GPS. At the restaurant, you point at the picture on the menu of what you want to eat. Or quite likely the restaurant has forearmed the waitstaff with a copy of the menu in English to proffer. Real, unavoidable, language learning experiences are increasingly rare.

Which is why I was delighted today when I returned from grocery shopping to discover, after translating every word of every package, that I had purchased, not a brick of pork sausage, but a brick of pork lard — half a kilo of the stuff. Though I was only out a buck fifty, I had no use for the lard and didn’t want it to go to waste. The right thing was to try to return it, especially since I knew that no one currently staffing the grocery store spoke English — an opportunity that had to be siezed.

I spent ten minutes devising and practicing a script that would facilitate the transaction. Then I spent a minute getting up my nerve — I don’t even like returning products in America, especially grocery items — and went back.

Upon entering I rattled off my prepared remarks to the cashier, though I’m still pondering just how effective they were. On the one hand, she did respond immediately with a barrage of Czech, which is perhaps a sign I spoke well. But she wasn’t quick to process my return either. Whatever she said back to me, it wasn’t positive.

She may have said, “You’re not making any sense,” or “We don’t accept returns.” Or maybe I had correctly pronounced inappropriate words and so managed to hurdle over the language barrier into a mud-puddle of confusion. I was trying to say “wrong product” but may have said “defective” product or some such thing. Maybe she wanted me to explain just how the pork lard had malfunctioned.

Well at any rate, whether through clarity from my repeated assertion “this is not sausage,” or from sheer attrition, they gave me my money back and put the lard back on the shelf. Then I went to the deli counter to peruse the more identifiable animal parts.

And though I didn’t particularly enjoy having this experience, I do enjoy having had this experience. Because for English speakers, situations of really, actually, having to communicate in a foreign language are becoming increasingly rare. If I had passed on this opportunity I’d have gone home with regrets, no matter how many sights I’d seen.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic