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?