25. Learning a New Language Without a Formal School

by H. W. Moss

I read billboards, bathroom signs, window displays and placards that are in a foreign language in order to learn that language. I also talk to the person behind the counter in their language whenever possible.

Increasingly, that language is Spanish. Although it might be Thai, Chinese or even Greek, I lack the alphabet to accomplish a reasonable interpretation of the sound or meaning in those tongues. In America, it is not going to be French that is floating around, although in Montreal, Canada, it is.

“Los hombres no lloran,” was on a Tobasco sauce billboard. I figured out it meant “Men don’t cry.” When I mentioned this to a Spanish speaking friend, she added what turns out to be the second half of a well known Latino phrase: “Como los mohares.” Like women.

The personnel of at least two restaurants I often go to welcome my attempts to speak Spanish. I am able to politely order my food, beverage, make change and ask for the bathroom key. I have learned the name for onions, lettuce, tomato, for a knife, fork and spoon all without listening to a single Berlitz recording or attending formal school. So far, all Spanish speaking people have been pleased with my feeble attempts to speak their language and often willingly add to my vocabulary. That has not been true everywhere I have traveled.

I did go to school to study French. When I visited France I did my best to use the language with sometimes surprising results. One day at the Eiffel Tower, my camera failed. I went to a nearby photo shop and introduced myself with, “Bonjour. J’ai une probleme. Ma camera – comment dit-on ‘rewind?’”


“Oui. Ma camera ne rebobine pas.”

He said, “Your French is pretty good.” His English was much better. Turns out he had lived in the Pacific Northwest for a few years. Seattle.

Not all the French were as generous. At one pastry shop a woman behind the counter became enraged that I even presumed to speak or learn what the various names of her foodstuffs were.

Our country is accommodating more people who did not learn English as a first language. The fact they mastered English, too, is a testament to their intelligence and ability. It only makes sense to try and communicate with them using their birth tongue. Besides, it will help us get around better when we visit their country.

Empleados unicamente.