As an 18-year-old, I was so fortunate to have applied for and received a Rotary Scholarship to be an exchange student to France. Wow!!! A year abroad immersed in a language that I “studied” in high school. A piece of cake, so you’d think!
However, try being surrounded by people speaking the language in which you have mostly only concentrated on conjugating verb tenses on paper. Repeating “Sylvie est a la Bibliotheque et Phillipe est a la piscine” only gets you so far. So that was my first experience navigating in a country without my native tongue.
How hard is that, on the other hand, when most of the European nations have a plethora of people that speak English to some degree – enough to get by if you need a basic human comfort.
Still, it was scary being totally alone and having people think that since you “studied” their language you were actually able to communicate in it and so they used their normal delivery speed and copious vocabulary. The first couple of weeks (month) were very difficult. Luckily, having had some education with the language, I was able to pick it up gradually, and within 4 to 5 months I was fairly fluent! (using the term loosely!).
In my travels, I have gone to many countries where I have no basic language skills whatsoever in their native tongue excepting maybe hello and counting to ten. If you buy anything over the price of 10 in whatever their currency is, it is not very useful, not to mention some currencies start in the 100’s. I am a very social person, and traveling is not only about the sites but the interaction with the people. Who doesn’t want to start a conversation with the lady who is walking their dog by first asking if you can pet her dog, or what her dog’s name is? OK – so we aren’t all animal lovers but what about starting that conversation with the person on the train next to you? Or sitting at the café where you’ve stopped to get a morning coffee? Or what about just basic language skills to navigate the culture and your day-to-day activities?
A couple of languages in which I wish I took a little time to learn some basic skills are Spanish and Italian. Spanish is helpful even in the United States in the region where I live. While I could limp along with some French verbs in the auditory comprehension department in a pinch. It would be helpful to know the actual Spanish verb names so somebody could understand me! I know it would not take me long to pick up some simple Spanish phrases that could open doors for more communication in so many countries around the world. And having spent 2 weeks traveling in Italy and some of it in lesser (much lesser) tourist towns, I was really feeling my lack of conversational skills. To tell the truth, just the ability to ask for directions or even a bathroom, forget about having a conversation!
While you are never helpless without language skills (charades and pictures can often get the point across). I often wish I could just select the “translate to <pick a language>” option in my brain and be able to magically communicate in the language of the country I am in.
How cool would that be? Until that happens, I need to think about educating myself at least minimally in languages. It will prepare me for upcoming travels so that I can get more than the sightseeing venues out of my trips!
-Tracey Miller from Denver Colorado.