“How are you always finding people?” our exchange student asked me at the airport Tuesday night, after I had struck up several multilingual conversations with strangers.
Airports are full of languages, and this is how I’m “always finding people.” I keep my ears open. I cherish opportunities to talk with fascinating people from all over the world.
I met refugees. I heard about difficulties living in the US. I got to know about American life from a new point of view.
Do you keep your ears open? What languages have you heard spoken recently? How well do you speak them?
Español – Spanish
When I checked in at the airport, the desk agent had a Spanish name on his name tag, and I thought I heard an accent. ¿Habla español tambien? “Do you speak Spanish, too?” He did! He comes from San Antonio, Texas, where I had the good fortune to visit several years ago. We reminisced about the gorgeous churches there.
አማርኛ – Amharic
I don’t like sleeping on planes, so my airport ritual includes buying coffee—and everyone working at the Starbucks was speaking Amharic. They taught me how to order my coffee in their language.
العربية – Arabic
At one point, I saw a Saudi couple (or brother and sister?) pleading with a customer service rep, and after a few minutes I saw them again, surrounded by police. Once the police left, I approached them and asked in Arabic if they were doing ok. They told me they missed their flight, but only received compensation for half a night at a hotel, even though others on the flight received a full night’s compensation. We discussed the racism they experienced as Arabs in the current US environment.
Afka Soomaaliga – Somali
Walking around with my coffee, I approached a young man, working at the airport but apparently not terribly busy, so I chatted with him in Somali. I was so happy to be able to ask him his name (Muhammad) and some questions about where he lived and how his work at the airport is going. Muhammad indulged me by speaking almost 100% in Somali, even though his English was good.
العربية – Arabic (again)
We got in late to nearly-empty Boise airport, yet I overheard a couple of workers speaking Arabic. They told me that they were from Iraq and had lived in Boise for eight years. Since it was after midnight, my family was leaving me, and my ride was waiting, I didn’t get to chat as long as I would have liked, but their kind wishes of “Merry Christmas,” even though they were Muslims, still ring in my ears.
If you love languages, overcome your shyness and find people! They’re already there, easily found. Whether or not you speak well, the language will break the ice. You will meet people who often go unnoticed, to whom few others normally speak. Hear their experiences, learn about their stories. They will enrich you as you walk away with new confidence.