4 for the price of 2

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I’ve been in Mozambique for work for the past two weeks (hence the silence here). One thing I quickly noticed, which I also remarked in Cuba a few years ago, is that once you know one Romance language and a little bit of another, you basically know them all. It’s magic!

I visited Cuba right after finishing a Spanish class that had gotten me through the basics:  the most straightforward past, present, and future tenses, a lot of vocabulary, and simple syntax and grammar rules. That grounding got me about thisfar in conversations with Cubans, but that was good enough for me. Through my arduous journey to French proficiency, I’ve come to expect incremental language-learning progress, and I can now see and appreciate it more clearly.

While traveling in the Cuban countryside, I met a trio of Italians who took the same bus back to Havana with me. We had a nice conversation in English, and then they started speaking to each other in Italian. It felt like my intense week-long effort to concentrate on Spanish allowed me to open up my ears and let the Italian wash over me – and I heard the Romance in it, so to speak. I could understand the gist of what they were discussing – what to eat for lunch or something like that.

Here in Mozambique, I’ve had a similar experience with Portuguese. Funnily enough, I’ve been communicating mostly in French, since my two closest colleagues and collaborators do not speak the greatest English. French is our lingua franca. It’s been very good practice, and as in Cuba, it – and my rusty-but-still-in-there-somewhere knowledge of Spanish – has unlocked the Romance in Portuguese. I’ve learned to turn the sh sounds into s sounds, and with a few other auditory acrobatics, it’s basically Spanish. And when my Spanish isn’t strong enough to understand what someone is saying, my French fills in the gaps.

There’s been multiple moments when I haven’t needed my colleagues to translate for me because I’ve gotten a full enough sense of what someone is saying based solely on listening for the similarities between Portuguese, French, and Spanish. Now I understand what my Czech father meant when he said that he could understand Polish even though he never learned it and could not speak a word of it.

Language families are the best families! Just kidding. But they are pretty great.

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