There are obvious benefits to learning languages, you immediately seem smarter, have the ability to live a global life, and generally expand your mind beyond a monolingual perspective. All those things are fun and dandy, but what about when languages become a tool to stop “crimes,” like a damn superhero (quotations added because not telling someone they have toilet paper on their foot while walking out of an airport bathroom can also be considered a crime).
Aside from helping strangers avoid embarrassing moments, being a polyglot gives you the ability to help people catch flights, connect future lovers, or even keep yourself from stumbling in crevices you have no business being in. So why don’t more people embrace and exercise this superhero power we all were born built with?
Below are five moments I’ve felt like such a superhero bad-ass, capable of saving the world simply by being a Polyglot. And because no one captured the moments on camera, I’ll try and reenact moments where I might as well have had a damn cape on.
Superhero Moment: Deflecting the Phony Flirter
I’m sure we’ve all experienced the following scenario: someone wants to show off in front of friends, a group of people, or even a date, and they blurt out words that may or may not completely cut off their ability of ever creating a real bond with the person they’re speaking to. “Yeah, I speak French,” fully knowing the entire span of their vocabulary can only form the sentence, “voulez vous coucher avec moi,” from Lady Marmalade.
Don’t act like you haven’t done it. And hey, it’s ok, French is basically synonymous with your ability to pick up hotties. Until you come across someone like me, who actually understands and speaks French. Then you have yourself a petit problème.
The other day, I decided to take my booty over to one of West Hollywood’s pretentious pool parties (to my defense, it sounded better than roasting in my AC-less two-window apartment). I arrived only to soak in the skin cell filled pool, sip a warm, overly priced beer, and catch up with friends. Just as my toes turned into that special prune texture we all used to love as kids, I felt a hole being burned on the side of my head from a random guy staring me down. First of all, bad manners anyone? Secondly, staring isn’t going to magically make me want to talk to you. So like the gentleman this dude was(not), his friend came over to me in 2nd grade fashion to tell me his buddy had been staring at me all day (no shit). I go up to him and bluntly say, “hey, thanks for burning the hole on the side of my head with your stares, you sure know how to get a girl’s attention,” clearly being a snarky snarkerson. He was caught off guard by the fact that I stood up for the fact that everyone deserves a peaceful, stare-free soak in the skin cell pool. Sadly for our staring stranger, that wasn’t the only time I’d catch him off guard.
I proceed to try to make some normal conversation happen out of the encounter. He mentions he speaks French, so I naturally try to swerve the conversation into my daily language practice. Boom, the man chokes and doesn’t respond to my questions in French. He literally LIED to my face to sound more appealing. The rest of the night I just laughed at how silly it was that some girls might actually fall for his tricks, and other people like him.
Superhero Moment: Making Love Happen
Somewhere right now, people are falling in love. They’re exchanging life stories, gazing into each others’ eyes, but most of all, they’re flirting, even if they don’t speak the same language. It was a Sunday afternoon, hot, sticky, and spicy, in a run-down shack of a restaurant in Havana, Cuba. I was chatting up my local tour guide (found by literally just approaching me and asking if I wanted a local tour in exchange for my hand-me-down clothes for his sister), when the series of events unfolded. I had told my tour guide, Frank, I spoke Portuguese, but that I was from the States, and in Cuba to learn Spanish. It’s always my disclaimer to tell people that I’ll understand 90% of what they say, but when I open my mouth, strange things will come out.
Minutes later, I was introduced to one of Frank’s cousins, who was chatting up an Angolan tourist. Now, even though Angola is in Africa, they speak Portuguese, so somehow I got caught in the mix of their adorable flirting when they hit a language barrier. The guy tapped me on the shoulder and asked me in Portuguese how to tell the woman how beautiful he thought she was, and that he hoped to bring her to Angola one day. I smiled and like the little interpretation matchmaker I was at that moment, I translated exactly what he said to her in Spanish. Like a ping pong ball, I was bouncing between them, delivering their sweetness in languages they could understand, until I got them to a place where body language would probably work the rest out.
After 10 minutes of that Portuguese and Spanish love triangle, I turned around to explain what had just happened in English to my American friend with a huge smile on my face.
*Hopes those people got married and lived happily ever after*
Superhero Moment: Teaching People How to (Find) Fish
Damon and I took a quick trip to Porto in April to film for a gig that was nice enough that we were placed in a quality hotel during the week-long shoot. Aside from the brilliant AC, location, and bomb breakfast buffet (we’re talking 5+ choices in breads alone), there was also super friendly staff working the front desk. Their English was a moderate level, but considering it’s a European hot spot, there’s not as much of a need to only speak English. There I was, digesting the multi-grain roll I ate for breakfast minutes before, when I heard the language struggle that made my super hero alarm go off.
“Exkyewz me, I meust find ze zardeenz,”
a solo French woman traveler said. The front desk attendant was as confused as I was, to be quite honest. I knew the woman spoke French, I just couldn’t dissect what she was looking for. Being completely obvious to the fact I had just been eavesdropping, I go over and ask the French woman if she needed help.
Moments later, we realized the lady was looking for the historic sardine factories by the piers, and somewhere between Portuguese and French, we got her to where she wanted to go.
Superhero Moment: Rush Hour Power
Nothing stresses me out more than the stress of other people. Call me an empathetic person, or call me hyper-sensitive, I don’t really care what you call it, but the minute I saw the following scene at the airport in Miami, I almost lost my shit.
Two extremely expressive grandmothers with about three 100 lbs bags each, struggling so hard to even grasp their footing around all of their baggage, arguing with each other about how the bags would be overweight. This fiasco in and of itself gets interrupted by two polite and soft spoken Australian travelers.
“Excuse me, can we get by you so we don’t miss our flight.”
The chatty grandmothers weren’t even silent enough to try to understand what they were saying.
(Said in Portuguese) “Oh my god, I think they’re telling us our bags are too big,” “do you think they’re going to tell on us,”
(Attempts speaking in English) “Our bags good.”
This horrendous back and forth of no one understanding a damn thing goes on until I was on the brink of popping a blood vessel.
I go up to the Australians, “Can I help you?”
They tell me their flight boards in 20 minutes, so they would like to cut in line of the gabbing grannies. I turn to thing 1 and thing 2 and tell them in Portuguese what the situation was, and they immediately agreed.
Boom, I saved not only the two travelers, but my potentially popped blood vessels from exploding due to the stress levels.
Superhero Moment: Getting Found in Translation
During one of these crazy trips, we ended up bumming around in Budapest. As the “never get a package tour” kind of travelers we are, we decided to take the city’s sights into our own hands, and get completely and utterly lost. Budapest isn’t your tiny town either, it’s so big it used to be two cities – Buda, and Pest. They worked out their differences and joined forces to become Budapest; a city that’s now home to some of Europe’s rowdiest Erasmus students.
On a random Saturday afternoon, while checking off the rest of the things we deemed to be “must see,” like funnel cakes and Gozds
u Udvar, a tiny hidden alley with all the food and life you’ll ever need, we lost ourselves conveniently the same time we lost cell reception.
Rogue we went, trying to ask any local for directions back towards our hostel. And for once, we had no luck in communicating. People either walked too fast, ignored us, or stopped, but didn’t speak English.
We go into their equivalent of Rainbow, or a store filled with cheap clothes you could potentially walk into the club looking like Cardi B. While there would be clubbing happening later in the day, I walked in because I needed basic Tees to add to my travel wardrobe of four janky tank tops. I figured the check-out counter would be an opportunity to finally locate ourselves.
I was really trying here, limbs flailing, saying the following,
“Do you speak English,” the woman’s head nodded side to side, at least that was universal.
“Fala Português?” Negative.
“Hablas Español?” Absolutely not.
“Parlez vous Français?” While most of Europe does, this woman did not.
I figured I’d try my last resort. My high school level Italian (at the time).
“Parli Italiano?” All of a sudden there were signs of life. This woman opens up to tell me she too had taken Italian in high school, and proceeded to give us directions to our destination. Plus there was a bonus of friendly conversation and of course, Italian practice for me.
For Polyglot Superheroes in Training:
Personally, all of those moments motivated me to keep learning as many languages as possible. You never know what superhero moment could be awaiting you around the corner, and when your hidden powers can help someone, even if that means yourself in a phony flirting situation.
Nothing feels more fulfilling than knowing your brain can literally become a converter to help human beings interact.