I get to talk to foreigners the most at work.
Other sales people, they’ll come and get me. I don’t speak Spanish. I don’t care that I don’t speak Spanish.
I know like 20 words. That’s a lot if they’re the right words. I help people and don’t care I don’t know the language. I use the words I know and listen to them, have them repeat it and then sort of guess what they’re saying using the words they’re using that sound like words, sometimes like Latin roots, sometimes like words I may know, sometimes like English counterparts. I’m rarely right, but sometimes close. Then I gabble at them in my few Spanish words, hand motions, lots of smiles and examples of nearby things that may be close, and sometimes Latin root words that I know aren't Spanish but may be close enough for them to get.
Surprisingly this works a LOT of times. It’s very funny for others to watch but is really appreciated by the person who speaks no English. It’s me trying to help them and obviously listening to them and not doing what all the other employees do, either walk away shaking their head saying they’re sorry or, worse, just talking louder and slower in English.
Part of why it works is I know a LOT of words and roots. Manos I know is hands not because it sounds like hands and I may not be spelling it right, but because it sounds like the first part of manipulate or mandible and that has a root of hand so I guessed hands. I was right. Seriously. I got Manos as hands by Latin roots tonight helping a customer, they were holding their hands out but that wasn't clicking. I thought they were like holding something that wasn't there at first. We got through it. They needed lotion for dry skin and they work outside in the cold frijo, frio, friha, not sure how it’s spelled and their hands were dying from it. They needed a really strong lotion and what to do about it. So, I told them which lotion, and about wearing cotton socks over their hands at night. They said they would try it. I swear I’m a genius. I really am. I don’t get the credit I deserve.
Then there was the lady with thinning hair who wanted Rogaine and how to use it. I figured it out, showed it to her, explained to her that using more wouldn’t make it more effective, just use un poco. mucho was just mucho denero, not mucho bueno. She totally got it. I'm positive no native speaker would say it that way but it worked. We were literally communicating with only like 20 words in common.
I credit my success with having been the one who didn't speak the language. When I lived in Germany I didn't speak German at first and would try and get by with what I knew. My vocabulary grew over time until I was fluent enough to watch movies in German and enjoy them. But at first there was lots of pantomime and me learning how to learn to communicate and how to be patient and how helpful it can be to have someone just try... and how nice it was to find someone willing to be ignorant but willing to try and help... how it wasn't embarrassing if it was helpful.
So, to all those Americans out there, and I've done it, who say, "You're in America, learn English!" Yeah. I get it... but you know what? When it was me I didn't learn German overnight and I appreciated the hell out of those native speakers who tried to understand me and communicate with me while I did learn.