by Allie Rigonati

Photo courtesy of John-Morgan

In traveling, I have always been amazed at the differences that exist among different regional dialects. The English language itself yields a bevy of different interesting words that mean one thing to an American speaker, that may not carry quite the same meaning for say, an Australian or British speaker. Such examples include the British word flat for the American apartment. Sneakers to us Americans are known as trainers to the Brits or joggers to Australians, and traffic lights are known as robots in South Africa. While colonizing powers may have come in and enforced their official languages, the development of each of these languages was, in turn, affected by the amalgam of different cultures presiding in different regions at different times of a country’s historical development. The American English of today is arguably different from the American English of 200 years ago, just as the English spoken here in California differs to a degree from the English you might hear spoken on the East Coast, in the Midwest or down South.

Learning a foreign language in school can equip students with the necessary skills to travel with the proficiency required to ask how much something costs, to ask where the nearest bathroom is, and to order a steak, but it is hard to expect to become fluent in a foreign language solely in the classroom. Take Spanish for example, there are over 20 Spanish speaking countries spread out over five continents the world over. Each dialect has formed differently based on the geography and influence of the different cultures that emerged in each area. Just as American English differs from Canadian, South African or the English of New Zealand, so too, does Argentine Spanish differ from Mexican or Cuban Spanish. Therefore, you can see how it might be a challenge for foreign language classes in schools to pin down which dialects to teach when, as a student traveling to Ecuador might require a slightly different vocabulary from a student traveling to Spain.

And now for a brief anecdote on the personal embarrassment sustained by me at the hands of my parents on a family trip to Portugal while in high school. My father is a native Portuguese speaker from Brasil and while my mother learned continental Portuguese in high school, it was later bastardized by my father’s Brazilian Portuguese after they met. Nonetheless, as I was mentioning earlier, vast differences exist between continental Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese, so much so that it was quite difficult for even my father, a native speaker, to fine tune his ear to the regional dialect of the Portuguese. On one of our first days there, tired, jetlagged and me just a little bit beyond annoyed with having had to have spent an entire twelve hour plane ride next to my siblings, the Rigonati family ventured out in full force to the local mini-mercado (a small little market) to buy stamps, postcards and other touristy accoutrements. When the time came for my mom to ask for the tape, she froze up, forgetting the word. Luckily my dad jumped in to give it a try, using the Brazilian “durex,” at which the little old lady behind the counter tensed up, her face changing at first from an off-white pallor to a rosy glow of embarrassment, before stammering out a very polite, “minha senhora, this is a family establishment, we don’t sell those here…” all the while glancing between the three children, and back again at my parents. Sufficed to say it took us a moment to figure out what she was talking about, before her suggestions to try and find a pharmacy indicated that we might have asked for something a little more x-rated than just your average old scotch tape.

Moral of the story: while you might be fluent in the particular regional dialect of a specific language, make sure to distinguish between condoms and tape to avoid giving sweet little old Portuguese ladies unnecessary heart attacks…or something along those lines.

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