I’m an intermediate-level Spanish speaker, but if you listened to me order food in a restaurant or have a polite conversation with a taxi driver you might think I was at an advanced level -- possibly even fluent -- albeit with a slight gringo accent. Watch me in a business meeting and the truth emerges. Business terms, sports metaphors, double-entendres, slang and colloquialisms fly back and forth and my head is spinning. I miss quite a bit of the content and the only way to understand everything would be to stop the meeting every 20 seconds and ask a different question – Disculpe, ¿Cuál es el propósito de esta reunión? (“Excuse me, what’s the purpose of this meeting?) Instead I become the quiet gringo in the corner, absorbing whatever I can. One-on-one conversation is much easier. I can read facial gestures, body language and most importantly, I can ask clarifying questions. For example, if someone says (in Spanish) “Please blah blah blah, blah report blah blah blah?” I can follow up with “You want the budget report that we’ve been working on?” When the person nods their head affirmatively, I know that I've understood them. Learning a language is a lot like detective work; when presented with an incomplete picture of something, you make educated guesses based on available facts.
Because of this, I try to prepare for meetings by bringing my laptop and having the Google translate web site open. Obviously any web translator will do, the point is that if I don’t understand a word I can look it up. Also, if I want to say something, but a word or phrase that I don’t know in Spanish is stopping me, I type in the English phrase, translate it and I’m able to get my point across. If the laptop is too conspicuous or not appropriate, I use the translator “app” on my iPod.
I have also become adept at hiding. There have been times when I need some information from someone and I‘ll see them at their desk and instead of walking up and asking them, I run for my laptop and compose a carefully-worded email. This way I am sure that I have conveyed my meaning and any intended nuances. Sometimes the Director of the center will start taking about this or that problem and end with ¿Qué piensas? (“What do you think?”) Even though I’ve understood what she has said and I have some firm opinions on it, I prefer to craft my thoughts in Spanish carefully, so I’ll say, Déjame pensarlo (Let me think about it) and I’ll head straight to my laptop.
This dynamic exists outside the office as well. For example, if my kids cannot make an evening swim team practice, I email the coach early in the day so that I know he sees it. Their coach has a tendency to run his words together and use a lot of slang, making phone conversations challenging. It is much easier to write the email in Google translate, check it over, then cut and paste it into an email. This way I know that the message sent was the same as the message received.