Speaking Spanish in America (North, that is)
I wonder if there is etiquette for speaking to people in their own languages? I speak Spanish, and I love to practice with native speakers. The question is, do I just start speaking Spanish every time I see someone that I think speaks that language?
When learning a second language, we are told to plunge right in and start talking. The only way to become comfortable with a language is to use it, and so we should seek every opportunity. When I am in my local big box store I often hear families talking in Spanish. They discuss the price of sugar, they correct their kids, and they chat about nothing. It would be rude for me to walk up and talk with them, or at least I feel like it would be. Standing in line to pay I sometimes strike up a conversation in English, then do I say, “Oh, now can we talk in Spanish?”
Why do I struggle with this?
One time in a Mexican Restaurant with my extended family and friends, I decided to order in Spanish. Everyone else spoke in English, and when my turn to order arrived, I ordered in Spanish. The waiter, without batting an eye, write down the order, replied in English and moved on. He might’ve not even noticed which language I spoke, or he might have preferred to keep the same language for the entire group. Another time I was having a yard sale and two Hispanic ladies were chatting together while browsing through the items I was selling. My house was also for sale, which is why I was trying to get rid of a few things. One lady asked the other how much she thought my house was, and I eagerly told her. All of this was in Spanish. The two ladies didn’t reply, they just turned and left. Did I offend them? Had they said bad things about me that I had missed? I don’t know.
Another time my daughter and I were eating in a different Mexican Restaurant. We asked the waitress if we could order in Spanish and practice our language. We asked in English. She agreed, and we had a wonderful time chatting in Spanish. She even told her manager who came out to chat with us. At the end of the meal the chef sent out a complimentary dessert.
Last week my husband and I walked into a panadería, a Mexican bakery. Immediately all eyes were on us. I felt shy and out of place. All my Spanish words froze on my tongue. We made our purchases quietly. After I paid the cashier said, “Que le vaya con Dios” and I smiled. “gracias” and I fled. Maybe when I feel better I’ll return and ask to practice with her.
I know that when I am in Costa Rica I only speak Spanish. I wake up every morning thrilled to speak, and go to bed exhausted for speaking. At the same time my feelings are hurt when I start speaking in Spanish and the Costa Rican switches to English. Was my Spanish not good enough, have they assumed I can’t manage to communicate? What I fail to consider is that the Costa Rican may be excited to practice his English since I am a native speaker in that language. Same problem, but in reverse.
I guess the answer is to try to see situations from the other person’s point of view, no different from any other communication issue. Ask for permission to practice, be ready to speak, and have fun!