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Speaking of speaking

A few weekends ago I was in New York. Part of my visit included eating at a number of Japanese restaurants. Since I spent two years in Japan as a child, I like to try out what little Japanese I remember whenever and wherever I can.

This particular night, I was eating at a popular Japanese restaurant with my son, his wife and two little children. The adults knew that we needed to get the oldest child settled and started on his meal as soon as possible.

How about something to draw with and something to draw on to keep him occupied? I offered my pen while the waitress looked a little confused. "Kami, dozo," I said in my best Japanese. It means "Paper, please."

No response.

I was sure she heard me and I was equally sure that the word for paper in Japanese is kami. "How about the back of a menu?" my daughter-in-law suggested. The waitress shuffled through items in a cabinet and produced a coloring book drawing on a paper place mat. Perfect.

By way of conversation, I asked the waitress where she was from, expecting that she would mention some region or prefecture in Japan that I might remember. "China," she said. The light went on in my head. I don't know the Chinese word for paper, but it clearly wasn't kami.

I have run into this situation before. A frequent diner at the Bonsai sushi restaurant next to the paper, I tried out some of my Japanese on the waitress there on my first visit.

No response.

Not a smile of recognition. No surprised acknowledgement that I was attempting to communicate in her language. I asked her where she was from. "Korea," she said. The light went on in my head.

I mention this because I am about to try again. Not a Japanese restaurant this time, but a Mexican one. My wife and I are planning a short vacation in Mexico next month and I want to brush up on my Spanish.

Well, it's not exactly brushing up. I don't speak Spanish, but I did manage to speak something resembling it the two times I have previously visited Mexico. But that was 12 years ago and 10 years ago.

Clearly that was then and this is now and a trip to a Mexican restaurant seems like the perfect place to practice my language skills. Especially since my experiences speaking Japanese in restaurants have been so successful.

My trip to the Mexican restaurant will not be a solo flight. I will be accompanied by a co-worker who happens to be from Mexico. She is very encouraging. Especially since, whenever she speaks to me in gloriously fluent, musical Spanish, she gets my version of the non-Japanese waitresses in a Japanese restaurant.

My wife studiously has been listening to Spanish-language lessons on CDs for months. Her pronunciation sounds like a native. Mine sounds like what it is — a guy who plans on speaking Spanish in less than 30 days but hasn't figured out yet that he had better get on it.

It's not like I haven't done anything. I have books and dictionaries. One of my books has stickers with Spanish words on them that you can put on things around the house and at work. The stickers are only in Spanish, the idea being that you will associate the object directly with the Spanish word and not the English one. Meanwhile, I haven't figured how to keep the sticker that says "perro" attached to Duke, our chocolate Lab.

Another handy tool I have from one of the books is a tri-fold piece of paper with the names of foods on it in both languages. You take it with you when you go out to eat, pull it out of your pocket, and launch into placing your order or translating the menu. Unfortunately, the folded paper does not have the word for tofu. But I did find the word "soy."

I have flash cards with words and phrases in Spanish on one side and English on the other. I have been listening to Spanish radio stations. I bought my wife a book of love poems by Pablo Neruda — Spanish on one page, English on the other. And someday, I'll read it.

When I was in Portland riding the MAX light rail I paid attention to the recorded announcements telling us — in English and Spanish — which door would be opening at the next stop. On my flights to and from New York I read the Spanish subtitles during the safety video instructions.

So you can see I have not been idle. And I won't be idle when I am having lunch — in Spanish. I already know the word for paper.