I can’t say exactly when it all started.
Maybe it was when I unexpectedly found some nice Bulgarian songs; perhaps when I discovered how cool the Czech accent sounded; or it could have even been when I started reading the fascinating history of Russia. Whatever the reason, Slavic languages are undoubtedly the subgroup of languages from the Indo-European family that appeal to me the most.
And, as language enthusiasts know, when you get to know a language, you also get to know its people, culture, and the entire world surrounding it.
This is one of the aspects of language learning that encourages me the most: immersing myself into a completely new realm, full of manners, traditions, customs and curiosities to discover.
If you believe the adage ‘opposites attract,’ then you’ll agree that there should be a strong pull between Central/Eastern Europe and Hispanic America.
Because, let’s be honest; the first thing that comes into most people’s minds when thinking of Latin America is ‘tanned, smiling people dancing tropical dances all day long.’ Somebody who believes such a statement certainly hasn’t come to the countries of the Southern Cone, where it’s not rare to find places and customs that bear more resemblance to Europe than to other Latin American countries.
What about Slavic Europe? Well, I can’t really talk about all Slavonic peoples, but even though I wouldn’t use the adjective ‘upbeat’ to describe Russians, stereotypes are just that: stereotypes, and nothing else.
When I say this, I really mean it. Before traveling to Moscow, most people warned me to be careful, as Russians could be unfriendly towards foreigners. Perhaps it was just coincidence, but I don’t want to believe I was just a matter of luck that all the people I interacted with were actually the opposite of what I’d been told to expect. Consequently, I have only pleasant memories of that trip.
The funniest thing was that the people who’d warned me about the supposed hostility of the Russians had no Russian friends themselves, and and never even visited the country.
Every time I approach someone using their native language, I get the same ‘wow!’ face. For example, once when I was traveling in Bolivia, I reached Potosi in the evening. As it was already late, I had a ‘what-the-heck-should-I-do-next’ expression on my face. Just after hopping off the bus, somebody offered me a lift in their van. I noticed an accent that was not Bolivian.
I asked, ‘Where are you from, buddy’?
“Russia,” came the reply.
“Ну, ты можешь говорить по русский, да?,” I said.
“Whoaaa!” he responded. I could tell he was wondering, “Why-the-hell-is-this-Chilean-guy-speaking-Russian-to-me?”
What followed next? Many nice hours practicing my poor Russian while driving, hours that would otherwise have been pretty boring had I not been able to speak at least a little of my new friend’s language.
This also happens among Latin people. Traveling through the south of my country, I stopped in a small town near the Andes Mountains to get some food. I noticed the clerk had a strong Italian accent.
“Scusi, lei é Italiana?,” I asked.
“Si! Anche tu?” he said, with that same ‘wow!’ face. The conversation soon ranged far beyond my groceries.
Such encounters are why, without a shred of doubt, I believe that languages can truly bring people together.
Once, one of my Russian students living in Chile told me that Latin America is a world absolutely apart from Russia. I know, I know. He is surely right, of course.
Nevertheless, even though you may always find nasty people everywhere you go, it has nothing to do with their culture and, at least, as you speak (or struggle to get to speak) more than just one language, you will usually find people are happy to help you speak their mother tongue and glad to see you are interested in their culture. Such people are in the vast majority!
This is one of the greatest rewards you can get from learning languages.
So, what are you waiting for before you dive into your target language? No money to visit the country? Contact the embassy and ask if there are any events being organized for native speakers of your target language in your country. Try social networks. Use Skype. Find stores and restaurants owned by foreigners and start frequenting them.
There are no excuses, just as there are no reasons to be afraid!