I really wish I was fluent in several languages. Can you imagine how helpful that could be?

I know people who are bilingual. Pete and I have a relative who speaks four. And I also recently found out that Princess Caroline of Monaco is fluent in five languages. And I envy them all their proficiency with languages.

I’d be happy to be fluent in just one other besides English. Or, maybe fluency is too big a dream. Perhaps competency is what I should strive for.

The American lack of facility with other languages really struck home with us on our recent travels. Other countries start foreign language instruction at a much younger age in the schools; whereas for most American students, it generally doesn’t start until high school.

In our school system here, honors students can start French or Spanish in 7th grade, so both of our girls started French at that time. Grace is now taking both French and German in school, and Ellie is still considering what she’ll do when she is at the high school next year.

In our travels, we have most often been in other English-speaking countries — England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In fact, we really haven’t ventured out of our linguistic comfort zone too many times.

Oh sure, we’ve been to Quebec. But many people there are bilingual, plus signs tend to be in two languages, so it hasn’t been that challenging for us. Especially when you add in the fact that 75% of our household speaks French in varying levels of definitely not fluent and even I can decipher basic signs and restaurant menus.

When we were in Paris a few years ago, we really didn’t need too much French, as the hotel staff spoke beautiful Englishand we were able to manage with pigeon French when we needed crepes from street vendors, chocolate croissants from bakeries, and so on.

Pete and I were in Estonia 18 years ago, but we were unable to find a phrasebook in advance of our trip — the internet was in its use a modem to dial into AOL stage — so we couldn’t study up. As it happened, we were in Tallinn for only a weekend and were mostly with other American relatives, so we didn’t need to acquire any language skills.

On this most recent vacation, however, we had to navigate other languages, sometimes more than one in a day. On one day alone, we used Italian, German, and English, and could have used some Slovenian. I don’t know about you guys, but I do not know one single word of Slovenian.

So… lots of German on this trip and a modest amount of Italian. I studied German in high school and a little in college, but had never been auf Deutschland before this trip and had never spoken German out ofneed. I did a very minor amount of advance studying and had a tiny little phrasebook with me while we were traveling, plus we consulted Google Translate as needed.

Lots came back, but just when I would feel even a tiny bit smug about how much I remembered from 25 years ago, I would then need to conduct some sort conversation or transaction entirely in German and would realize how little I actually know.

You know that dream you have that it’s the day of your final examand you haven’t studied all semester? Yeah, at times this trip was like that.

At least I had studied German and could bumble my way along. Italian, on the other hand, was a totally new game for us. A new, sometimes stressful, game.

Our general rule of thumb when we travel is to make sure we know basic vocabulary (hello, goodbye, please, thank you), as well as cultural conventions so that we don’t come across as total assholes. For example, in France, when you enter a shop, you always greet whomever is working there with Bonjour. It’s just common courtesy.

As we were driving into Italy, Pete and I were going through our Italian phrasebook and practicing: Buon giorno, per favore, grazie, parla Inglese… In our smug American-ness, we just assumed that we could get by with a few basics because so many Europeans do speak English.

You know what? A lot of Europeans do not speak English.

The first day we were in Venice, Pete and I went to a market first thing in the morning to pick up breakfast. I learned that if you do not read the Italian signs that apparently clearly tell you to put on plastic food service gloves to pick up produce, you will get fussed at in rapid-fire Italian by the produce manager. Luckily, there was a kindly Italian woman standing nearby who saw my confusion and mimed what I should do.

In an odd moment, on a later trip to the market (where I did indeed reach for those plastic gloves before I touched the cauliflower), the guy at the register started talking to me in Italian, realized I didn’t understand and switched to French, and then switched to English and asked I was British. I was simultaneously awed by his facility with languages and inordinately pleased that he tried Italian and French before defaulting to English.

I know we’ll go out of the country again and I know we’ll be in countries where we don’t speak the language. I guess I’m just going to have to study harder before each trip and try to do the best that I can as each situation presents itself.

What about you? What is your language prowess?

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17 Responses to Polyglot

  1. Cassi says:

    Poor. Extremely poor.

    My mom emigrated from Germany when she was 17, and married my dad, a professor of German literature. After my mom realized she couldn’t become a doctor, she completed her PhD in Comparative Literature. She used German, French, and Italian as her three required languages. My parents often speak of their trip to Rome, where my mom used Italian words with French grammar. Also of my mom’s propensity to keep a pile of silent “e”s at the end of all her written work and sprinkle them in (here and there) after she completed any writing in English. :-) My dad is incredibly proficient in languages, and could speak many fluently and more than 15 competently. While I was in college he was teaching himself Japanese.

    We were required to take a foreign language in MS and HS by our parents. I took 5 years of French (enough to place out of the college requirement). However, for most Americans, there are so few opportunities to practice any language other than Spanish. America is just too big, and it takes too long to get out of it and into other countries. How fun it must be to take day trips to another country, the way we travel to other States.

  2. Little Miss Sunshine State says:

    I went to a Catholic elementary school in a city where each ethnic church had their own school. I took French from K to Grade 2, then 2 years of French in MS, 2 years of Spanish and a year of German in HS.

    English was a second language for both of my parents and my Mom is still pretty fluent. My great-grandparents rarely spoke English and my grandparents went back and forth in the same sentence!

    I can read pretty well and understand slow conversation but don’t speak any very well.
    I would love to learn Italian. Tom and I would love to spend a month in Italy sometime in the future.

  3. Little Miss Sunshine State says:

    Forgot to add that my kids went to a high school with a GREAT Latin teacher that the kids all loved. It was the most popular language class in the school. They kick butt on Jeopardy questions with Latin phrases and they can figure out a lot of English words with Latin bases.

  4. Becky says:

    Charlottesville City School students begin learning Spanish in kindergarten, with the entire sixth grade taking high school level Spanish 1 this year. They began the elementary school program several years ago and this is the first year for the sixth grade Spanish. It’s quite possible my daughter will be on her third language before she even sets foot in high school.

  5. jen_alluisi says:

    Four years of German in HS and about half of the 1st unit of Rosetta Stone Italian. That’s pretty much it. I know a few phrases, as most of us do, in other languages, but not enough to really speak or understand. Hell, I am quite sure I would be flummoxed in Germany as I do not recall much German, the only language I’ve really studied. But I have traveled to Spain and Austria and managed to get by. I do wish we studied languages in the US the way other countries do, though. When Dave gets a job, we will have to put Margot in daycare, and you’d better believe we are considering one of Charlottesville’s several multilingual immersive daycare programs.

  6. Julie says:

    I read decades ago (before having my first son) that the *best* absolute ideal time to learn a foreign language is….of course….preschool/kindergarten. I tucked that handy nugget away in the brain until it was kindergarten time for first son…enrolled him in Spanish, and almost immediately discovered he had an auditory processing issue. So-ooo pulled him out of that class, and who-wee, glad I did. He would have floundered and as it was, he needed other assistance in helping him be able to just mainstream regular classes. I did not get around to getting 2nd son in any language class early on, so we stayed an English speaking family. I had dreams of learning French myself, so when they were old enough for me to go out at night, I jumped into multiple language classes (all French) trying to find the best fit for my aging brain. I went through 4-5 difference French learning classes, but none of them were helping me learn it.
    I then discovered that you really cannot teach an old dog/aging brain, new tricks. Unless it is already there, it’s near impossible. Add in to that that unless you are around other like-language speakers, you will not use it enough to grow it. I can read a lot of French, and understand a lot of what I am reading, but cannot speak, or spell. It’s frustrating but I know entirely normal.

  7. Lori H says:

    I took Spanish through year 5 in high school, and two semesters in college. I can understand and read it better than I can speak it, but that isn’t saying much at this point. My kids also studied Spanish so we have talked about getting Rosetta Stone to brush up on it. My husband took French in high school and wishes he had continued with it.

  8. Little Miss Sunshine State says:

    In the Dominican Republic kids in private school speak Spanish as their first language and are required to take English and one other language starting in K. Most take French or German because tourism is their #1 job there and the majority of the tourists are Canadian and German.

  9. bdaiss says:

    I know bits and pieces of Spanish and Italian. A few fun Latvian swear words along with “happy new year”. Same for Bulgarian. Most were learned by osmosis from those for whom the language is their native tongue. (There are advantages to having large numbers of foreign summer workers around…) I took 2 years of Spanish in high school where I learned a LOT about cheer leading (because the cheer “coach” was our teacher) but very little language skills. I’d love to round out my Italian and learn French. And Latin. I keep hoping I can entice one of my kids to learn since my husband has no interest. The nice thing about Italian is it’s very similar to Spanish, so when we went to Italy I could usually befuddle a few words/tenses out of what folks were saying. The only time we struggled was in Courmayeur where folks spoke French or Italian but very little English. We stopped into a cheese shop for some dinner yummies and everyone (English speaking or not) had a touch of the giggles when my husband asked for cheddar. :)

    You might be interested in this: http://www.mangolanguages.com/libraries/
    If your library participates, it’s free access to language learning software (Mango for adults, Little Pim for kids). I keep meaning to do some with my kids. Think I’ll get started on that this week.

  10. ssheers says:

    I started learning French in 7th grade and then Russian in 10th grade. I did a summer immersion during high school in France and then majored in Russian and spent a very cold semester in Moscow in college. Then I spent about 20 years not using these language skills. Now, my French sentences tend to turn into Russian.

    A few years ago, I went on a school choir trip with my daughter to the Czech republic and Austria. Could not understand anything in Czech but could sort of wing it in German.

    Our family went to Rome and Florence a year ago, and I found I could sort of wing it in basic Italian.

    Last summer in England, I rented a car and could not understand a word of the (English) traffic report on the radio except that there is always a traffic jam around Stonehenge.

  11. Kris says:

    One reason I wanted to move to England was because of their fantastic language programs. In Scotland, the kids learn a different language each year. It’s never fluent (at least not till high school and they pick one to study full time) but it’s enough to get them by. I think that’s brilliant.

    I understand Spanish but I don’t speak it well. When I visited Guatemala, I was pretty excited at how much I understood for only having studied it for 4 years. Now I’m doing the technical parts of the language at school and I hate it.

    I always wanted to take German when I was growing up but my mom forced to take Spanish instead. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Oh wellz.

  12. Lisa says:

    Four years of HS German many years ago and maybe a semester in college. Always read it better than I could speak it. But think/hope it would come back with practice. IA kids are encouraged to take four years of a foreign language and I encouraged a young man I know to get a Spanish minor in college but he such a smug know it all that he didn’t and now most of it’s gone! Just thinking of the business opportunities that he will miss out on from losing this competency makes me a bit nuts. Clearly I know nothing!

  13. I may have to brush up on my mime skills if I want to travel abroad…
    It’s a pity we don’t invest in better language education.

  14. Violet says:

    Spanish in 8th grade (only because I’d completed my parochial school’s entire English curriculum), 3 years of HS French, then another semester in college (that I may have flunked…). It’s kind of surprising how much French, and Spanish since they are both Romance languages, I can understand when I read it. But spoken? Oh, I get a word here and there.

  15. I took French in high school with little proficiency acquired; then took 1 semester each of Spanish and Hebrew in college to get that requirement met. Even working on vocab with 3 children who made it to AP Spanish I have no Spanish to speak of. All 3 of the children do pretty well with their Spanish, though!

    I only hope if and when we make our dream trip to Paris, Google translator will get us through!!

  16. I took 3 years of German (one in MS, 2 in HS) and followed that up with a year of Latin. I sailed through the first 8 weeks of Latin because the basics were so much like German (conjugating verbs, for instance)… then I was in way over my head because I hadn’t studied! I forgot most of my German until I moved to Germany at the age of 29. We lived in a German neighborhood and while several neighbors could speak rather good English, I worked hard to re-learn German. If I kept to mostly present-tense, mein Deutsch was passable after 3 years — not great, but passable. The owner of the little bakery where we bought our bread spoke no English, and I had a kid with food allergies, so it was really important to communicate!
    My husband took some French in high school and even more in college (he was 3 credits shy of a French Minor) so it did make travel in France, Belgium, and part of Italy much easier for us.
    I loved the Loudoun County (VA) public schools because my kids could start a foreign language in 7th grade and continue all the way through HS for several languages; unfortunately, we were only there for 4 years. My 2 older boys each had 3 years of foreign language (one took German, one took Spanish). My current HS senior took 3 years of German in LoCo and then moved here where there was nothing beyond German 3 in our entire district. :( He did take a year of French but for the past 2 years he has been in the AP Cambridge Seminar and there hasn’t been time in his schedule for foreign language.

  17. Ugh! I always feel like a complete language moron. In my high school, you could either take language or music. Guess which one I chose. I took 1 year of German from a completely useless woman in college and 1 year of French after grad school because I dated someone who was trilingual. I’ve been attempting to learn Italian on my own (with Pimsleur CDs) but since they only speak Italian in Italy, that’s not going much of anywhere. So, I can say useless things like “The ball is under the airplane” in Italian, and “Where are my keys?” in German & French. I recently decided that since I live in Florida and have many friends who speak Spanish, there is absolutely no reason not to attempt to learn Spanish. I can fake it in restaurants and be polite but that’s about it. I’m telling myself that any little bit I learn will be good for my aging, bourbon and chocolate addled brain. Maybe we need to form a language learners support group!

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