Too Many Languages: Challenges of Nomad Life

Flags of many nations along Panama Bay

Many years ago, I was picking out pastries in a bakery in Paris with my older daughter Stephanie. When the clerk pointed to a pastry, I confidently replied, “por favor.” My daughter quietly said, “Mom, that’s Spanish.”

Looking back, I have to wonder if this error was a harbinger of things to come?

Too Many Countries, Too Many Languages

Steve and I spent eight months in Europe in 2018. During that time, we visited seven countries, and each one had a different language. Even if we wanted to, there was no way we could learn the languages of all these countries in such a short time.

We did the next best thing. We learned the basics: hello, please, thank you, goodbye. This, along with Google Translate and pantomime, was enough for us to function.

We mainly visited large cities, and many of the people we interacted with spoke English. This certainly made our lives easier, but it also meant that we did not have to work very hard at learning the local language. In the words of the TV character Adrian Monk, “It’s a blessing and a curse.”

The table below shows the percent of people who were proficient in English in 2019 in the counties we visited. The data is from Statista.

CountryPercent
Bulgaria58%
Croatia60%
France55%
Portugal60%
Romania60%
Spain56%
Portuguese is Not Gender Neural

You probably know that some languages assign genders to their words. Portuguese is one of those. So when I learned that the word for thank you is obrigada (feminine) or obrigado (masculine), I assumed that the gender I used would be based on to whom I was speaking.

I was wrong. Unfortunately, we were several weeks into our travels around Portugal when I learned this. Until then, I had been saying obrigado to men. A few of them replied with strange looks. But one man’s reaction really stuck with me. His smile was bordering on a laugh.

It wasn’t until our third week in Portugal that somebody set me straight. We purchased tickets at a museum, and I confidently responded with obrigado because he was male. The clerk politely told me that as a woman, I should always say obrigada. I thanked him for letting me know.

If you are wondering if you should correct a person who makes a mistake while speaking a language that is obviously not their native language, my vote is yes. If you do it politely, it will most likely be appreciated. I was certainly grateful to that clerk.

Immersion Subversion

You might think that people who spent ten months in Spanish-speaking countries, as Steve and I did in 2019, would become quite adept at speaking Spanish. That wasn’t the case for us. We didn’t meet as many natives who spoke English as we had in Europe. Instead, we relied on Google Translate and therefore failed to pick up more than the basics.

While we were in Latin America, I spent time on Rosetta Stone lessons. Now that I have plenty of time on my hands because of the pandemic, I am continuing to learn Spanish using Duolingo. Both programs have helped me recognize written words, but speaking and listening are still a long way off.

Why Don’t You Understand Me?

Based on my limited experience with foreign languages, I noticed a distinct difference between the way English speakers (at least those from the U.S.) act when someone doesn’t understand us and how people in Latin America act when the listener does not understand.

In Latin America, we noticed that if we spoke a few words of Spanish the listener would assume we spoke Spanish well enough to converse. I sat through more than a few awkward bus rides where my seatmate would go on and on in Spanish. Saying “No hablo Espanol” usually had no effect. All I could do was smile, nod, and try not to look too dim-witted.

It seems as if Spanish speakers believe if they just keep speaking in Spanish, the listener will suddenly realize he understands Spanish perfectly well.

On the other hand, we English speakers tend to repeat a word or phrase several times, often getting a little louder each time. Surely if the person we are speaking to would just listen, he would understand what we are saying.

The Other Izquierda

The opposite of the above occurred in Arequipa, Peru. Steve and I were in a taxi heading to the pick-up point for the next leg of our Peru Hop bus tour. Our driver did not have a GPS map and did not know exactly where we wanted to go. My map showed our destination, which was a few streets to the left.

Coincidently, I had just learned the Spanish words for left and right over the previous few days. So I said izquierda, the feminine version of left. He kept driving straight and looking confused. I repeated the word izquierda several times to no avail (being careful not to get louder each time). Eventually, he managed to get the point and headed in the general direction we needed to go.

I relayed this story to a group of people. Some of them suggested that there may have been a regional difference in the word for left. That may be, but a Google search shows izquierda and izquiedo as the only Spanish words for left.

It is very frustrating when you get the nerve to speak a foreign language to a native speaker, believe you are using the right words and pronouncing them well, and you get nothing.

Letters May Not Sound the Way You Expect

One of the things we enjoy eating in Budapest is…wait for it…Subway subs. Yes, I know they are not Hungarian. And quite frankly, I never ate them in the U.S. But here, they seem fresher and remind us of home. That leads me to my next language error.

I thought I would impress the friendly staff at Subway if I ordered my sub in Hungarian. Since I wanted a ham sub, it seemed easy enough. The word for ham is sonka. I could handle that.

My plan failed miserably. The woman behind the counter had no idea what I was saying, so I reverted to English. Fortunately, she understood that very well.

I later found out that the letter s is pronounced like sh. I should have asked for shonka. So when you are heading to the capital of Hungary, you are going to Budapest. Once you arrive, you are in Budapesht.

That’s One Interesting Alphabet

The Hungarian Alphabet can be intimidating as it has 44 letters and 13 vowels. But it is a phonetic language, so once you learn each letter’s pronunciation, you can pronounce any Hungarian word.

Several Hungarian letters have more than one character! CS, DZ, DZS,   GY, LY, NY, TY, SZ, and ZS are all letters in the Hungarian alphabet.

But We’re Always Learning

Steve and I were exploring the Cinkota Cemetery when Steve pointed out the word család on a tombstone. He commented on how it must have been a large family since it was on so many grave markers. We continued to explore, saying “C Salad Family” each time we saw it. After a while, it seemed like there were way too many családs, so I looked it up. It means family and is pronounced Chaw lad because the letter CS is pronounced like CH in English. See what I mean?

Learning that word led to one of my prouder foreign language moments. When we finished at the Cinkota Cemetery, we went to the Old Cinkota Cemetery. It is small and hard to find. The remaining grave markers are covered with vegetation.

An ivy-covered grave marker
One of the remaining grave markers at the Old Cinkota Cemetery

As we were leaving the cemetery, we saw a man walking towards us from the church next door. He asked us something in Hungarian. Surprisingly I was able to pick up one word in his question: család. He was asking if we were looking for family in the cemetery. I was so proud that I could understand his question.

I told him we weren’t. Relying on gestures, he invited Steve and me into the church. We had a lovely visit despite the language barrier. It turned out he is the current pastor, as he conveyed to us by pointing to his name at the top of a long list of pastors. Before we left, he gifted us with two hand-embroidered bags.

A church and two embroidered pouches
The Lutheran church next to the Old Cinkota Cemetery (Cinkotai Evangélikus Egyházközség temploma) and the two cross-stitched bags
Let’s Throw in Another Language

Shopping in a place where you don’t know the language adds time and stress to your trip. It can also lead to mistakes. For that reason, we make sure we take time all the time we need to pick out our purchases. What we didn’t expect in Hungary was to have to translate from German.

One popular drug chain in Budapest is D.M. This is a German company that sells cosmetics, health care items, and household products. So when you shop there, you may be translating from Hungarian or German. Good grief.

How Did He Know That Word?

Steve and I were at a pharmacy while he picked up some medication. Steve noticed the young man at the next window was listening to his conversation. In English, the clerk asked Steve if he knew how to use the medication. Being the smart-ass he is, he replied, “yeah, as a suppository.” The guy at the next window chuckled.

That store did not have the pills Steve needed. As we left the store, the young man stopped us and asked if he could help us find a store that carries them. I was surprised to learn that he was a Hungarian native and was awed that he knew the word suppository.

It Got the Job Done

Perhaps the most humorous language experience I had was in Bucharest, Romania. Steve and I were spending the day at one of our favorite places,  Therme Bucuresti. One of the many services they offered was hairstyling, so while Steve was relaxing in the mineral baths, I got my haircut. I wanted to find out how much it would cost for Steve to get his cut. My cell phone was safely tucked away in my locker, so I couldn’t use Google Translate.

I tried several ways to get the question across. The woman helping me was patient but did not understand what I was asking. I finally resorted to pantomime.

I made a fist and held it in front of my crotch. She immediately understood what I was asking, and I got the price.

Steve got a nice trim. I got a funny story.

Misc Observations
Galapagos sign

Sometimes other people mess up. We have seen more than a few poor translations in museums. Despite the less-than-ideal translations, we always appreciate when English translations are available.

This sign on a travel agency in Puerto Ayora in the Galapagos Islands always makes me laugh.

A sign reading “We spoke English.”
A poor translation in the Galapagos Islands
My Favorite Foreign Word

Romanian was one of the easier languages for Steve and me to decipher because it is a Romance language that has a lot in common with languages such as French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. There was one word we repeatedly heard in Bucharest: Plăcere (pronounced pleasz  air ae). While it is not the official word for thank you, it was used that way.

Be sure to share some of your language blunders and victories in the comments section below.

Stay safe and healthy,
Linda

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