Over the river and through the language barrier

When I began my job at a trade magazine, I never imagined I would have to concoct a scheme to jump over a language barrier.


Jumping over the language barrier like a boss. Via Flickr user buxx.

As an editor, I conduct a lot of interviews with people and experts in the air cargo industry across the world. The people I usually interview speak English well, but there’s a problem: Sometimes, their administrative assistants don’t.

For the past week, I’ve had to call a Latin American airline multiple times for a story, trying to reach the public relations person. And the assistants on the phone don’t speak English fluently. I can tell that their skills in the language go about as far as most Americans’ knowledge of Spanish — high school level, nothing more. Unfortunately, my Spanish skills amount to one year of college classes (that I last took more than a year ago) and occasionally flipping by accident to one of the Spanish radio stations.

So today I tried an experiment. I would use Spanish to ask for the public relations person, who has been out of the office until now. My Spanish-speaking boyfriend helped me with a few phrases, and I was on my way.

Here’s how the conversation went:

Airline: Buenos días.

Me: Buenos días. Me llamo Adina Solomon, y soy de la revista Air Cargo World. ¿Puedo hablar con ____ (insert name here)?

Airline: Sí, uno momento.

That was it? But it was so easy! In English, that exchange had taken a few minutes between the administrative assistant asking me to repeat my question slower and me trying to coax out an answer to where the PR person was. All I had to do the entire time was look up the Spanish word for “magazine,” and I would have been set.

It just goes to show that speaking in other people’s native tongue yields better results, even if it’s only two sentences. Confusion was averted. I got to the PR person without problems. And I was reminded once again that not everyone in the world speaks English — and that’s OK.

Also, I should stop putting off learning more Spanish before I have to call Latin America again.

What would you have done in this situation? What do you find is the best way to learn a language?


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