“Pan tostado?” asked the smiling server.
On day one of my recent stay in Bilbao, Spain, I looked up from my morning tea in a jet-lagged fog. Despite years of Spanish, I was rustic. Was he asking for my room number? Was he saying hello?
No, it was about breakfast. Pan tostado—not words I had heard together for years. My brain worked to translate. Pan—noun, bread, yes, got that. Tostado…ah, too late. He was already coming at me with English.
“Would you like toast?” he offered.
“Si, gracias,” I answered, deflated, feeling every bit the ugly American.
Source: Deborah Cabaniss
After four years stateside, I was in another country for the first time since the pandemic began. With thousands of miles of canceled trip credits in my pocket, I was once again in a place where English was not the mother tongue. Signs gleamed with not one, but two languages—Spanish and Basque—and I tripped over the unlikely combination of T and X as I ordered pintxos with my txakolina. Under a glorious blue sky, I attended a conference, sat in cafes, and strolled through flower-filled parks. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed being away.
First world problem? For sure. What a luxury to be able to travel by air, have time away, and experience another culture. As I walked and talked, Spanish words flooded my mind. Gradual, I responded more quickly and translated less. I recalled when, in Spain to study after college, I had my first dream in Spanish. No Spanish dreams this time, but even after a few days, I picked up bits of conversation as I passed people on the street. I was thinking in Spanish. I felt more connected.
The pandemic sent us to our corners of the world like balls on a billiard table. Tucked into our lockdown lairs, we watched as people in other countries counted their dead. Glad we’re not there, we thought—until it was in our city or our block. Who gave COVID to whom? Where did it start? Which country has what resources? Global connection through the internet was a poor substitute for being on other soil. Did we just lose the ability to stroll through European museums? Or was something else lost?
Re-experiencing the sensation of consistently speaking Spanish got me thinking about this question. Turns out that even transiently speaking another language can make us perceive the world a little bit more like native speakers of that tongue. That’s what happened in a 2015 study of 60 university students.1 Previous research indicated that, when shown photos of a person moving towards a goal, German speakers tended to focus on the goal more than English speakers. This was thought to result from the fact that English verbs have an “ing” form, denoting ongoing motion, while German verbs do not.
The investigators in the 2015 study replicated this finding for monolingual students but found that bilingual students for whom German was their first language and English their second shifted perception depending on the language they were using at the time. Specifically, if they started observing the photos using German but midway switched to English, they focused more on the process and less on the end goal (as English speakers tend to do), while if they started in English and midway switched to German they focused more on the end point (like the majority of German speakers).
Fascinating. Not clear why—again, could be the nature of the grammar, but could be something else. But it suggests that using another language—even for a few moments—can alter the way we see the world.
So, if I’m using Spanish, I might see the world more like a Spaniard. What might that mean? That I’m connecting to a more ancient culture? Experiencing proximity to the war in Ukraine? Feeling part of a multi-national continent?
Being able to see the world—even transiently—like another is key to developing empathy. And empathy is key to reducing inequity and diminishing xenophobia. When we talk to children, we try to use the words they use. When we see patients, we try to echo their expressions. When we are alone in our homes, our neighborhoods, and our countries we lose out on those experiences. We don’t trip over new expressions and mix our college Spanish with our high school French. Our flat screens don’t allow us to truly try on the words of others—let alone the new smells, different quality of light, and diverse sounds. Just hearing the high-to-low wail of a French police car can send me into a reverie about walks along the Seine, and the pervasive smell of dense espresso transports me to Italian hill towns. But these sensations don’t only evoke our own Proustian memories; they connect us to the experiences of others who smell different air, eat different food, use different words, and have different worldviews. It’s amazing to think that just using the words of others can inch us a little closer to their perspective.
Yes, I’m still wearing a mask, so the smells are less intense. But I see how important it is to be here—borrowing words for a while—to understand the perspectives of others. Happy to have Spanish rolling off my tongue again and to have a glimpse into other views of the world. And the pan tostado is delicious, too.