As we walked down the tree-lined street, a couple crossed our path, and we overheard her say in a slightly raised and exasperated voice, “So, you think it would be better for me to stay with you, even if I’d be miserable?” Our heads snapped around. He appeared much older than she. We waited for his response. But then, she slipped into the driver’s seat of the car and he into the passenger seat, so any further response or discussion was lost to us — not that we would eavesdrop.
We walk a lot and don’t try to eavesdrop on others’ conversations. Really. But in restaurants where the tables are pushed so close together, in planes where passengers are literally right next to you, and on narrow sidewalks, we become unwilling listeners.
Imagine our happiness on our around-the-world trip as we discovered we were freed in so many countries where we didn’t speak the language. People around us chatted with each other, and our not understanding a word released us from the burden of following their conversations. Their conversations became background sounds much like birds chirping and distant traffic.
Danger lay ahead. We started studying Spanish with Duolingo in preparation for our 2016 trip to South America. What happens when we arrive and overhear conversations in Spanish? Will we react as if we are in an endless Duolingo session – trying to translate everything we hear? How will we be able to filter out “background noise” and not be driven crazy by the need to understand everything said around us? After all, we don’t want to get lost in translation.
We think if we were to overhear a woman in South America addressing a man in Spanish, “You think it would be better for me to stay with you, even if I’d be miserable,” we’d be motivated to translate her question into English and ready to continue the translation of the poor fellow’s response. Of course, we’d be motivated purely as an academic exercise to practice our Spanish!