Floating, dawdling, Russian immigrants are a regular contingent at morning swim times in our senior community. Some speak English, but as a group they naturally revert to their first language.
One recent morning a swimmer smiled at one of the Russians and asked, "How do you say hello in Russian?" The other woman grinned and slowly said the word. The native English speaker tried it out. The Russian woman repeated, and the first woman tried it again. Apparently, from head shake by the Russian, she got close.
The friendly woman repeated it once more, thanked the Russian speaker, and said "My grandfather came to the United States as a three year old from Russia. But he didn't remember Russian. His family were Germans working in Russia, and they left when conditions became difficult."
A second Russian woman observed the interchange, and her friend turned and translated. She beamed too.
A fourth swimmer said she'd taken Russian in high school, but didn't remember it. And I chimed in that we only remember a language if we have to use it, preferably with a native speaker, not the disembodied voice in the language lab.
Did you have lab time as part of the required foreign language requirement in secondary school or college? I hated it. The large head phones clamped too tightly and messed up my hair. I felt stupid talking to a machine, and I didn't know if I pronounced words correctly or not.
Then one summer we hosted a foreign exchange student for a week-end. His English was better than my Spanish, but we spoke mostly Spanish. It was the first glimmer of hope I had that I could learn enough to speak with someone.
Teaching Spanish speakers and communicating with parents, then attending a (sort-of) bilingual church kept my Spanish skills alive. A few years ago I was riding the subway in Barcelona. I got on, and a young man offered me his seat, using English. In Spanish I answered, "Thank you, but I don't want people to think I'm old." A couple about my age, sitting nearby, laughed with me. I'd been slightly funny in a foreign language. It felt great.
In all these situations, a small effort to connect with someone in their own language caused a stranger to not feel strange. Somehow, the act of humbling oneself to be bad at the language, turned an outsider into an insider. What a marvel.
However, this strategy did not work when I learned a few phrases of Finnish off of a website. I used them at a wedding with the groom's family. They looked perlexed until one of the party unmangled my greeting, and burst into laughter, turning to fill in the rest of them. Ah well, I tried.
Have you had a chance to "cross the aisle" linguistically, and make a stranger feel welcome?