Learning languages at the airport

Be brave and meet great people at the airport!
Be brave and meet great people at the airport!

“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.

What was the last surprise language conversation you had? Who did you speak to? What did you learn?

Photo credit: peretzp via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

18 thoughts on “Learning languages at the airport

  1. I had a Korean friend before. He told me that he has a Chinese friend whom he speaks with using “broken English”. He told me that he understands this Chinese friend talking in “broken English” than me who applies the rules of English language. I do not know if this has any significance to your post, but I am just reminded of this. I remember creole and pidgin. Okay, I think I have to shut up now, I’ve been nostalgic lately. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The last surprise: speaking Spanish/Ladino to a Syrian refugee, who was trying to find the way to the refugee shelter. We both tried several languages till we found out I could understand his Ladino and he could understand my Spanish, when we both spoke slowly.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Rachel

    I spent a few hours in Madrid Airport once and when struggling with a drinks dispenser (which refused to take notes, it turned out, although it said it did), turned to the nearest person to ask for advice. After struggling for a few minutes to have a conversation in Spanish, I realised the couple were actually French when they spoke to each other – unfortunately my French was only marginally better than my Spanish at that point. Eventually I gave up, went to a different machine at the other end of the terminal, and managed to solve it with the help of a German.

    Airports are great for languages, I agree. I love transitting through Singapore, where the sign about the bubble fountain in Changi Airport is written in no less than 7 languages – only 3 of which I can understand! I’m heading overseas in just a little less than 3 weeks, so I’m looking forward to the language interaction possibilities, even if I am flying with a sizeable contingent of white Australians.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Rachel

        Israel!!!! I wish I could get more excited about having a chance to crack out my (really, really bad) Hebrew, but people keep warning me about how different modern Hebrew is…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Rachel

        I don’t know any Arabic! (other than, basically, “assalam alaykum” and “inshallah”). It’s been on my list to learn for a while, though… Do you know if many people in Israel speak Yiddisch?

        Liked by 1 person

      3. No, not many people speak Yiddish. Until recently it’s been looked down upon. In the first generations Yiddish was seen as the language of exile. Later it was just seen as a language for old people. It’s getting a little revival now among young people, but it’s not widespread.


  4. Rachel

    My only experience to report recently has to do with the increasing number of Afrikaaners in my area – although most of them speak flawless English! I went to the Reformed church for a bit when I was about 13-14 and there were a lot of new arrivals there – the first few weeks, a lot of the adults assumed my family were fresh from South Africa/ Zimbabwe, too, so I learnt pretty quickly to understand Afrikaans with the little German I had, because that was what everyone addressed me in. Although today I only know a few words of Afrikaans and even less Dutch, it’s still fun to try talking in the Afrikaans/German mix.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. When I was waiting for the subway with a Korean friend in Seoul, an older woman asked us for the way. She spoke English with an accent and used the term “smart trousers”. I thought, maybe she is from Great Britain or another country. But she told us that she was from Canada. We helped her to find the way


  6. Oops, sorry, pressed the wrong button before I could finish.

    We helped her to find the way to a shop where she wanted to buy formal trousers for her son. She wanted to thank us, so she bought us something in a bakery store. It was a really lovely evening.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m usually too shy to speak to anybody but yesterday I was sitting around the Centre for Language Learning at my uni and this guy approached me. Turned out he’s Haitian and just wanted to practice his English a bit. I obviously indulged and got to practice my mediocre French too!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: The First Leg – Tel Aviv to Bangkok | Rachel's Ramblings

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