Nagano, Japan, 2006
The sun shone overhead, a perfect blue-sky day. I was freezing my a** off, but it didn’t matter. A big powder snowfall overnight had me very excited. My snowboard strapped underneath me, dangling in the wind, the 5-minute chairlift ride would be quick and uneventful.
Next to me sat a twenty-something Japanese guy. We nodded at each other when we got on the two-person chairlift. A minute or two later, I thought I may as well say hello. I was in a great mood.
“Ky?, tenki ga subarashii desu ne.”, I said. Wonderful weather conditions today, aren’t they.
Clearly not expecting me this tall hairy fellow (me) to speak Japanese, he did a double take, and I repeated my sentence. He agreed, and we had a great conversation on the way up the lift and parted ways, wishing each other a fun day on the powder.
This is why I love learning languages, I thought. And here I am over 5 years later, writing about that unplanned. unexpected 5-minute conversation which happened on the spur of the moment. If I hadn’t buried my head in those textbooks and bothered to learn Japanese, I would have been just another outsider on the snow field. That short conversation made me feel like I was a part of the crowd, almost like I’d made a new friend, and it was partly because he didn’t expect me to speak any Japanese at all.
In this sense, English speakers have a great advantage. Most of the time, people don’t expect you to speak their language (even though we expect them to speak ours). They love it even more when you can – even if you can only say hello, thank you, or comment on the weather.
In his audiobook The Madrid Confessions, Ben Curtis from Notes From Spain talked about how he often had nice Spanish conversations with the building’s Madrileño carpark manager. The manager loved European football, and so, Ben learned to talk about football. Plain and simple. “Even though I don’t like football that much anymore, what a nice way to have a conversation with a local”, he summed up. I really liked that.
Question: Where have you had a memorable conversation that made you thankful to have learned some of the language? Share in the comments below.
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Photo credit: Stuart Barr