Curse these communication barriers

It seems there’s no bigger a hot-button topic these days than immigration. Some people get themselves really worked up over illegal immigrants, and other people get themselves just as worked up over the fact that other people get themselves worked up about it.

I’ve got to admit, sometimes it seems like I’m the only English-speaking person in my own hometown.

But I look at it more as a challenge than a problem. In fact, I kind of like speaking Spanish. Or, at least, trying to. And I try to get some practice in whenever I get the chance.

Just a few weeks ago, for example, I was in Riverhead Town Hall waiting for a meeting to start when some Spanish-speaking people wanted to know where the Social Services office was.

I instantly summoned my knowledge of Spanish so I could help them. But it was gone or something. I couldn’t think of the words I needed to give them the directions, even though I’m sure I used to know them. Not a problem, though. I just used other words that I did know. And hand gestures. Oh, and I drew a little map.

“El camino [road] Howell Avenue,” I told them, pointing to the road. “Y izquierdo [and left] en East Main Street,” I said, with my right hand then moving in a straight line for a while, “… y derecho [and right] … oh, and there’s a Merrill Lynch there.”

Whoops. I said that part in English. But I think I got the point across, and they seemed grateful. Of course, if you’re familiar with this part of Riverhead, you know that I probably could have walked them down there in less time, but that wouldn’t have helped me learn Spanish.

I actually took two years of Spanish in high school, but there weren’t a lot of Spanish-speaking people around here then. There were basically two major demographic groups at the time: locals and city people, and they both spoke English, although the city people said “yo” a lot.

And as with the immigrants today, the city people weren’t too popular with some of us locals, even though we used to be city people ourselves.

So while I thought it would be cool to know Spanish, I didn’t really have a reason to learn it.

But times changed and we began seeing more and more Spanish-speaking people out here and I started thinking maybe I should learn Spanish. Especially since, as a reporter, it could help.

I remember that it used to really tick me off when Newsday would show up with their high-falutin’ bilingual reporter just as I’m trying to communicate with some guy by using a combination of pig Latin and pantomime.

So about seven or eight years ago, I bought one of those computer programs that’s supposed to teach you Spanish.

I learned a lot of Spanish words, and some key sentences like “Estoy apprendiendo Espanol,” (I am learning Spanish) and “Mi Espanol es muy mal” (My Spanish is very bad) and, particularly useful, “Hable mas despacio, por favor” (Speak more slowly, please).

After a few weeks, I had completed both discs of the program and answered all the questions correctly. But whenever somebody spoke to me in Spanish, I still couldn’t really understand them. I would just keep saying “Hable mas despacio, por favor,” over and over again until, finally, they would just speak English.

Sister Margaret, who works with Spanish-speaking people on the North Fork, told me that to really learn the language, you have to be around people who speak it, and I didn’t know any Spanish-speaking people at the time.

But then about a year later, I met a girl who worked at the 7-Eleven and spoke Spanish, and when I told her I was trying to learn Spanish, she was eager to help.

I would come in and say stuff in Spanish like “Donde esta el comida de gato?” (Where is the cat food?) and “Quesero un cafe con leche y azucar” (I like coffee with milk and sugar) and she would tell me if I got it right or not. So I’d come into the 7-Eleven every night to get coffee and at the same time practice Spanish, although I sometimes worried that I’d run out of material, since the 7-Eleven isn’t that big and I already knew where everything was.

She spoke English, too, and among the questions she asked me during my visits to get coffee were things like whether I liked to dance, was I married, did I know anyplace she could live and, my favorite, did I like babies.

Suddenly, it seemed like I did have a pretty good reason to learn Spanish.

But somewhere along the line, something went wrong, and she stopped talking to me. She wouldn’t even look at me. I had no idea why, but I figured I must have said something in Spanish that didn’t mean anything near what I thought it meant.

Like, for instance, I might have thought I was saying something like, “Pardon me, miss, where is the peanut butter?,” when in actuality I was saying something like, “Damn, girl, you look like a cow.”

Whatever it was, she wasn’t speaking to me anymore in any language, and that was the end of my Spanish lessons.

But I’m not deterred. To this day, wherever there are Spanish-speaking people in need of an interpreter, I’ll be there to help.

Or, at least try.

Tim Gannon is a staff reporter. He can be reached at 354-8016 or [email protected]

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