Language Lessons

Sometimes just knowing a few words in a foreign tongue can make you safer and help you do your job better.

Dave Smith Headshot

So I am sitting in my favorite chair the other day, reading my magazines and watching the news when lo and behold I find out the Senate has decided English should be the official language of the United States.

What would I have done if German had won? Those folks (my ancestral countrymen) come up with words that go on forever. I mean, if we used their techniques to create new words to describe new things our language would have words like: gunthatshootsbyloadingbulletsbyitselffromamagazine, instead of the simple English term "semi-auto." Besides, the few words of German I do speak tend to leave spittle drooling down my chin...I have no talent for

I didn't actually see the debate in the Senate, but I hear Spanish was a close second to English. That's good for me, since I already can buy beer, find the bathroom, and swear pretty well in Espanol. Growing up in Arizona and having family of Mexican descent would have given me a distinct advantage if Spanish had won. Of course, the original vote back when we formed this nation was decided by a fellow named Ben Franklin who cast the deciding vote that allowed English to beat German as our official language.

Despite my relief that I didn't have to buy all new books in another language, I thought it was interesting that we live in a day and age when the Senate sits around and decides what our official language should be. I, of course, know exactly what this is all about, but for crimefighters I believe that understanding and speaking key words in the various languages common to our patrol areas is a very important thing.

Fighting crime in Arizona was certainly made easier by speaking some Spanish and, when I moved to the Navajo Reservation, I desperately tried to learn some Navajo. I eventually got to where I could ask for a driver's license without insulting his or her body parts. Funny how a small inflection can change your whole day. Mostly, I got to where I could understand some words associated with activities that I needed to be aware of such as: "We should kick this cop's butt!" Navajo is easier to understand than to speak.

Not only is understanding words associated with threats in other languages a good idea, I found being able to give directions or make arrests or just show off my Spanish skills quite satisfying. There I would be asking questions of a drunk driver in front of my fellow gringos who spoke far fewer words than I, confidently asking for the suspect's "papeles," and suddenly the fellow would throw a sentence at me that might as well have been in ancient Egyptian because I only got the first word "yo."

Giving my fellow crimefighters a knowing look, I would then nod at the driver and use my favorite Spanish word "despacio" (slowly) and then desperately try to mentally translate what the subject slowly said to this obviously not-so-fluent gringo. Unfortunately, this still often ended with me using my second favorite word in Spanish... ¿Qué? (what?)

On the other hand, there were several times when my limited vocabulary did allow me to make arrests, recover evidence, help victims, and keep from getting a bad whipping. So I am a firm believer that law enforcement officers should learn words-both slang and clean-of the various languages in their area. You should at least know the words that precede a bad act upon your person and how to order a beer.

Dave Smith is the creator of the "Buck Savage" series and a former law enforcement officer from Arizona. Currently, he is the lead instructor for Calibre Press' Street Survival seminar.

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Dave Smith Headshot
Officer (Ret.)
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