While waiting to board my flight to Mexico at the Los Angeles International Airport yesterday, I decided to purchase a local newspaper for Spanish speakers . I used to do this more often when I first began learning Spanish, in order to challenge my word knowledge and increase vocabulary. I’ve been a Spanish speaker for a little more than 20 years now. I enjoy languages and my trip to Mexico is a perfect opportunity to hone my love of linguistics.

Back to the story. Well… I’m at an airport kiosk and I place my newspaper, “La Opinion,” on the counter along with a few decadent snacks that I should not be eating. The woman behind the counter takes the paper off of the counter and tries to replace it with another paper. “You’ve made an error, this paper is in Spanish,” she says to me.

“No, I didn’t make an error, that is the paper I want,” I respond.

“You speak Spanish!” she replies in a tone of astonishment.

I’m not sure why this happens but it happens often enough for me to take notice.

The woman behind the counter began speaking to me in Spanish, and, as we conversed, she asked me where I was from. I said, “Los Angeles,” and began to explain my affinity for languages when she interrupted me. “No,” she says, “I mean where in South America.”

Here’s a synopsis of how the conversation went and this happens more often that you’d believe:

Me:  “I’m from the United States.”

Her:  “No… you’re family, where in South America is you family from?”

I take this as a compliment that a native speaker can’t detect the accent in my speaking. I thoroughly enjoy when this happens. I was finally able to explain to her that I wasn’t a native speaker. She was impressed and her enthusiasm heightened as we spoke. She was from Colombia. We started talking about my last  trip to Colombia, the food, the people, the history, etc. Our conversation went on for awhile until it was interrupted by a long line of clients waiting to make their own purchases. Initially I had been the only person standing at the kiosk. We had both become oblivious to our surroundings and were enjoying our conversation in Spanish so much that we lost track of time. Those moments when we are immersed in exchanges with other human beings, and lose ourselves, are enchanting.

I was finally permitted to purchase my “La Opinion” newspaper and continue on my way after a warm hug from her and a few more words of praise for my Spanish. This sort of exchange occurred with me regularly while I was in Colombia last year.

Whether you’ve established fluency in another language or not, people tend to open themselves up to you more when you make an attempt to engage them in their mother tongue. I can’t tell you the innumerable opportunities that have been presented to me simply because I have made an effort to comprehend, not just the languages of others, but their cultures as well.

When I got on the plane and took my seat, I opened my little bag of “decadence” and found a few extra pieces of imported dark chocolate. Had the kiosk operator put them in there by accident or, was this another, typical, Colombian gesture of kindness?

I prefer to think of it as the magic of language.

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