I had been living in Spain for a few months, making lots of friends, trying hard to learn the new language, and having great fun doing it. I felt like Marco Polo.
Living in a foreign country when you are young and the world is new anyway is one of the most exciting and instructive things you will ever do. Everything is upside-down: everything you see, everything you hear, most of what you do—it’s all wonderfully strange and corny, like Alice’s Wonderland. You come every day like a guest to the Tea Party and chat with the March Hare, the Rabbit, and the Caterpillar. Maybe all day there’s a frown on your face—the frown caused by the puzzle around you, by the inconvenience, the little suffering that learning requires; but at night when you lie down, you smile. There are so many funny stories to tell your friends. Maybe you shine in those tales and you tell the kids the whole world is nutty; that the people are all unpractical or unreasonable or unwise; and that you are the hero, the only sane man. But deep-down you suspect, if you don’t already know, that the lesson to the story is your own ignorance.
By and by I met a U.S. Air Force colonel who had been stationed in Spain for years. His beautiful daughter spoke Spanish better than any American I’d ever met, so I was surprised to learn that he spoke none—not a word. “He understands quite a bit by now,” said his daughter, a little embarrassed about him. “He just never learned to speak. Doesn’t want to.”
“But why not?” I asked.
“He says he just doesn’t see the point of wasting his time studying, only to be able to say the same things in another language.”
I nodded with respect at this reasoning, trying to keep myself, out of caution, out of piety, from condemning it as plain-spoken ignorance. The man, after all, was an officer in the United States Air Force and I was a kid. Every day I had to watch my mouth and suppress this or that reflection, hold my horses, grin when I would have frowned, and so on. Often I wanted to call back home and tell them the world was not what they thought it was.
The Colonel’s bit of wisdom/ignorance lay around in my mind for years and one day I suddenly knew why he was wrong. You don’t learn a language to SAY things so much as to LISTEN to them.
You learn not so much to ACT as to OBSERVE, to WITNESS.