Learning a Second Language for All the Wrong Reasons

By Greg Schwem | January 30th, 2022

Humorist Greg Schwem on his resolution


group of men in a cafe Photo by Scott Griessel Dreamstime. For article on learning a second language for all the wrong reasons. Image

Humorist Greg Schwem pokes gentle fun at himself and fellow Americans as he ponders the possibility of learning a second language this year.


I have vowed to make 2022 the year I learn a second language, a goal I will achieve for purely selfish reasons.

I should already be bilingual, as it would place me in the company of, by some estimates, more than 40% of the world’s citizens who can converse in something other than their native tongues. Alas, in my 59 years on earth, I can only marvel at those folks in foreign countries I visit, so adept in their skills that they automatically address me in English when they see me approaching. How do they know? Apparently, I give off a “lazy American” vibe from a distance.

How shocked and impressed would they be when I instead began the conversation in French? Or Italian? Or most likely Spanish, since I plan to spend some time in Spanish-speaking countries this year.

Learning a second language so I could fluently travel the world was the plan back in high school, when I studied German, a four-year academic pursuit that, due to laziness in subsequent years, has left me with the ability to order a beer in Munich but little else.

Learning a second language – with caution

Several years ago, while preparing to give a speech in Poland, I sought guidance from my Polish neighbor, Stan, a fun-loving individual known for raucous outdoor parties in which he and his relatives sit on the patio and happily converse in their native language for hours, pausing only to refill their glasses with vodka. He was happy to help when I asked how to say, “What a beautiful country you have.”

“Write it down,” I requested. “Then I’ll say it back to you aloud a few times until you’re certain I have it right.”

Stan complied and listened while I butchered the sentence, offering pointers until he was satisfied at my diction. Feeling confident, I asked for more.

I asked how to say, “I had a delicious meal last night.” Stan’s brother took the pen and paper and translated, assuming the role of tutor while I doubled my Polish language skills.

As I walked home, my smugness turned to nervousness and then terror as I wondered if my jovial, vodka-addled neighbor and his brother were not playing the mother of all practical jokes on me.

“How do I know he was telling me the truth?” I asked my wife. “That I’m not going to walk on stage next week and say, ‘My nostrils are coated in chocolate.’”

“Stan wouldn’t do that to you,” she replied.

“Were you at his last party?” I countered. “I think I’ll just use Google Translate.”

I ended up doing neither, beginning my presentation in English, and apologizing to the audience for my lack of manners.

A benefit of learning a second language

Now I want to be the “Stan” of my friend group; the guy everyone turns to when a language situation arises. I will conceal my skills as if I were carrying a weapon used only in emergency situations. Meaning, when my friends and I take a boys’ trip to Mexico and we are struggling to communicate with the waitress, I will raise my hand, calmly say, “I got this,” and then order for the entire group in Spanish. My status among the group will rise instantaneously; who would dare lob insults at the one member who holds the key to communication? I won’t buy a beer for the remainder of the trip.

See my reasons? I’m not learning Spanish because I’m polite; I’m learning it because I’m cheap.

Of course, my boys’ trips don’t occur with the frequency necessary to master the language. So, I will have to find fellow Spanish speakers who will indulge me as I slog my way through a new vocabulary. My now-grown children claim to know Spanish, although I have never heard either speak it around the house.

There is a Mexican restaurant near my home. I could converse with the staff, but that would require ordering, and paying for, food. Most restaurants don’t have a “Just talking” section.

I WILL master this language, as I have always been a big believer in setting goals and achieving them. Once this column is finished, I plan to open my Spanish language tutorial app and practice a bit. Today I will learn to say, “I am trying to understand your beautiful language. Please be patient.”

Or maybe I’ll learn, “My butt makes noises when I walk.” Just in case my friends ask for some tips.


Greg Schwem is a corporate stand-up comedian and author of two books: Text Me If You’re Breathing: Observations, Frustrations and Life Lessons From a Low-Tech Dad and the recently released The Road To Success Goes Through the Salad Bar: A Pile of BS From a Corporate Comedian, available at Amazon.com. Visit Greg on the web at www.gregschwem.com.

© 2021 Greg Schwem. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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