Fluent in Any Language

Why Me No Fluent In Any Language At All

Derek Personal Stuff, Perspectives 83 Comments

Fluent in Any Language

Thank you, travel. For it is you who has turned me into a man who is fluent, not in two languages, nor three languages, and not even four languages. Alas, as a result of constantly bouncing around the world, far and wide, for over a decade, I can proudly declare that I am now fully fluent in…zero languages. That’s right, I’m not fluent in any language on the planet.

Yes, at one time I was indeed fluent in English, my mother tongue, but as the years passed by and I spent more and more time in lands where English was not the language of choice, my ability to speak it began to diminish.

There have been oh so many forgotten words and forgotten rules, so many stumbles and butchered grammar and an absurd amount of confused, nonsensical dribble to go along with it all. Just the other day I was talking with three Romanian friends about a wedding I had attended and suddenly, I could not think of a word in English. After struggling for a few seconds and thinking to myself, ‘Oh not again‘, it was my Romanian friend who chimed in with the word I was looking for – bridesmaid.

Yup, that’s it”, I said with my head hanging low. “Thanks Alex.

Rarely do I forget words such as “voluptuous”, “vociferous” or “insatiable”. It’s always easy words that slip my mind, like “sink”, “kitten” and “lightning”, and that’s extra frightening to me.

Fluent in any language - Tamga sign

Don’t get me wrong though. As a result of my travels, I can now get by quite well in Spanish, I can buy bread in Romanian and I can tell an Indian chai vendor, in Hindi, to prepare my tea without sugar. And I can also tell my Thai taxi driver whether to take a left or a right, I can point out a butterfly in Indonesian, order garlic soup in Czech and tell you I’m going swimming in German.

On one hand, it really is superb. All this traveling has given me a little knowledge of many languages, something that has opened me up to an infinite number of interactions and experiences that perhaps would have never occurred otherwise. Even a little knowledge of a local language can really make a major difference in terms of how rewarding your travels can be.

But on the other hand, knowing a little of a lot of languages has its downsides. All this traveling from place to place hasn’t allowed me to actually become fluent in or to gain a better understanding of any of these languages beyond being able to handle the basics or, in some cases, slightly more than that.

Also, when in non-English speaking countries, I tend to speak to those who know some English in a much simpler form of the English language than I would normally speak (back when I could actually speak English). It’s a form that removes many words and grammatical rules that might confuse a non-native English speaker, or at least that’s the idea. We go cafe now, yes? Me like. You honey? No, no, you no honey. Need honey spoon put tea.

And for some bizarre reason, much to the amusement of those who have seen this in action, when speaking this simpler English, I tend to talk with a heavy Indian accent. It just comes out that way, go figure.

When I’m back in the US for my visits to family and friends, they too notice that my English skills are failing rapidly. I’ll say “Thank you much gracias sir” when the guy working in the store shows me which aisle is home to the face moisturizer, um, I mean toothpaste, I’m looking for. I’ll naturally yell out “Skal!” instead of “Cheers” when having a beer with friends and I’ll say things such as “Water more please” that cause people like my mom to frequently remind me, “That’s not how we speak English here.”

I know it isn’t, I really do, but I can’t help it right now. I spoken Travglish – traveler’s English – for so long that I’ve lost my fluency in my own language, which makes me not fluent in any language at all.

Fluent in Any Language - Spanish graffiti

That’s probably why it takes me so long to write my posts on this blog too. I go over every draft at least a dozen times, editing all along the way, always finding errors that need to be corrected.

But hey, I’m smiling as I write this of course. Without a doubt I wouldn’t give up my travels at all for the ability to speak a language or two fluently. And over the years, I’ve realized that the number of languages a traveler speaks or how quickly you learn those languages really isn’t important at all. Go learn ten languages in a month if you want. That’s cool. But if you don’t, that’s cool too.

It’s all about effort, about doing your very best to learn what you can to communicate with those around you as much as possible. If it leads to little bits of various languages floating around your head instead of fluency, so be it. Besides, sometimes the INABILITY to fully and clearly communicate with someone standing before you leads to the most interesting and memorable travel experiences imaginable, or at least plenty of laughter.

Ciao. Sayonara. Flughafen.

Do you learn languages either while or before you travel? Or do you just pick up little bits of local languages here and there? Any others out there not fluent in any language at all? (I hope so!)


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Comments 83

  1. Sally

    Hi Earl,

    Great post on cheap travel in January, although living in Australia we don’t ever really get cheap opportunities to travel.

    While this is of course an awesome country to live in, I must admit I’m kind of jealous of all the opportunities that are available to you for travel.

    Hmmm, will continue to surf the net for cheap flights and pay for an Air Asia sale to come up soon!

    Awesome post by the way.

    Thanks, Sally.

  2. Chris

    I can totally relate to this. I’ve spent four years living in Asia now and realised just the other day that the English names of most of the fruits I consume on a daily basis are a complete mystery to me. Yet I know what to call them in both Korean and Khmer.

  3. Kane

    I agree fully! I am a native English speaker, from England, and used to consider myself quite articulate. However, 2.5 years living / working in Dubai-on-sea and another 5 in Doha have led to the erosion of my cunning linguistics. I find myself more and more often using butchered grammar and Simplish, sometimes for comic effect but usually as verbal shorthand: “make go drink”, “not like”.

    I have also started incorporating pidgin Arabic into sentences: “Yalla, habibi, let’s hit the bar.” Not to mention that some of the local workforce – Filipinos – pronounce F as P (e.g. coffee = copy)… and some of the older Qataris and Arabs pronounce P as B (e.g. push n pull = bush and bull)…

  4. Brigitte

    I lived in Spain and Germany for five months each, and I traveled the US for two months back in 2010. After that my Dutch (first language) has never been the same.

  5. simon

    I hate the fact that I’m an English-only speaker. It always makes me feel a bit guilty when I’m overseas and people have to speak to me in my own tongue. Then again, I’m also very lucky that so many people do speak English!

    Sometimes I think speaking more than one language is kind of like having a super power 😉

    1. zakaria sahli

      It is. I moved from Morocco to French Canada when I was 16. Now I’m 19 and I can speak multiple languages. I can speak the Moroccan dialect, classical Arabic, french and now I’m working on my English skills. For french it wasn’t hard for me cause in morocco we speak also french as a second language and I even have a french accent. But it took me so long to come up to this level of french, I did it by reading a lot of books. Now I’m working hard on my English, I read novels, watch movies and speak whit my friends in English. But one thing I’ve learned so far is that YOU HAVE TO constantly keep practicing the languages that you speak because even your native language can become a struggle if you stopped using it.

  6. Craig B

    When I was in Thailand, I tried to speak proper English. Then I find myself saying things like ‘me no like’ or ‘no have’. I said things like ‘driver good’ instead of ‘good driver’. I even said ‘breakfat finit’ when a tourist asked if breakfast was still available. This can be relaxed and applied to any destination anywhere in the world! So, no, you are not alone in ‘forgetting’ English!

  7. Anna

    This is super interesting! I was wondering if I was getting dumber after spending an extended amount of time in Europe lol it was hard to form sentences 😀

  8. Kait

    I thought it was just me that wasn’t fluent in any language! I know how to get by on a few phrases here and there in so many languages as my English slowly worsens. Another problem I find I have is, for example, trying to say something in French and then half way through the sentence I start speaking Spanish or Croatian!

    Have you found this to become a problem as well?

    Kait xx

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Kait – Yes, the random languages do get mixed up from time to time. Sometimes I catch it before I speak it, but other times words come out of my mouth in a language that has absolutely nothing to do with the destination I’m in!

  9. Will

    Earl,

    I laughed as I was reading this…I thought it was only me when I my English began dimishing during my travels.

    Cun ca chai Anglik, kap?

  10. Larms

    I totally understand where you are coming from. Sometimes I catch myself speaking and register that what I said doesn’t make sense in any language. I am currently learning Spanish as I’m travelling South America at the moment. So it gives me you that you can now hold conversation in Spanish. How long did it take you to learn?

    Larms

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Larms – It took me about a year living in Mexico on and off to get my Spanish to the point where I could convese quite well.

  11. Christine | The Traveloguer

    Love this Earl! It’s really easy to pick up the habit of speaking in basic English when on the road. It must feel strange to forget some of your English, but if it means you can communicate with people all over the world, then it’s worth it! 🙂

  12. Richard

    Thought it was just me who struggled to remember the simplest words. Besides English, my grasp of other languages is pretty mediocre! But I still forget the most common words – perhaps it is due to moving Down Under many years ago!

  13. Darren

    Great blog post, funny, and as I’m not as widely travelled as yourself, I’ve not yet had this problem. That said, I ALWAYS try and learn a few of the basics of the spoken language in the country that i am visiting. It annoys me when you see people speaking English and making no effort whatsoever to speak the local language.

  14. Emily

    Your example of Travglish made me think of Kevin from The Office, making up his own basic English to save time. “Me save time.”

    I also find myself forgetting easy stuff, like the name Kevin, often.

  15. Kathy Schmidt

    I nearly fell off my chair laughing because this is so true. The first time I experienced this was living in Korea, I would call my mom and she would have to remind me she wasn’t 5 so I could use bigger words. Or we would chat in afrikaans but I kept throwing in random korean words.
    I tend to pick up a little of a lot of languages, but have never mastered the being fluent in more than 1 and a half (English and Afrikaans). Working on cruise ships now, mean I am picking up even more, but instead of speaking them separately I have the fun habit of combining:
    I speak Spalian, instead of Italian and Spanish
    Derman, instead of Dutch and German
    and of course Konglish, instead of Korean
    And I must admit there are days when I can think of a word in 5 different languages but have to look up the english version. I also tend to become dyslexic when I am speaking, get words confused together, for example saying “have a good day” I say “Have a dood gay”….. It’s like my tongue doesn’t know how to articulate in English anymore….

    But I still love travel!
    Kathy

  16. Jonathan Look, Jr.

    Three years of continuous travel has rendered me virtually zero-lingual as well. I can still write, English, kind of pretty much okay but speaking is a whole other conundrum. I am lucky to have many traveling friends that suffer from the same affliction. Thanks for letting me know I am not alone!

  17. Ryan Biddulph

    Hi Derek,

    Ha! Ditto on talking simple, cave-man English to non native speakers 😉

    I’m big on hand motions. I sign folks as I talk like a cretin, even when they speak English, like here in Fiji.

    When I hear a heavy accent I get to signing and cretin talking. It’s automatic. I slow everything down, and as I speak word by word, I see them nodding, and they’re probably thinking that they have heavy accents, but speak English.

    I know a bit of a few languages but the quick travel times requires me to pick up the basics or a few phrases, before heading on.

    I am mildly fluent in Spanish. Took it in high school, and my fiancee and I Kelli use it in places like Costa Rica and Peru for a different experience, a warmer experience.

    Save Spanish, it is: Terima Kasih, Sawadee Kap, Sawadee, Selamat, Namaste, Bula and yeah, a handful of other phrases.

    Derek, Vanaka vaka levu from Savusavu, Fiji!

    Tweeting soon.

    Ryan

  18. Staz

    One of your most entertaining posts so far! I’d rather be alright in a bunch of different languages than perfectly fluent in 1. Not like you can no longer speak English either, if you were to head back to states and live out the rest of your days there I’m sure you’d revert back to normal in no time. But as your lifestyle currently (for the last 14 years) has gone outside the norm, your language abilities have simply adapted and that’s quite impressive to be honest. More posts like this!

  19. Lavi

    When I returned to the US from India a few months ago, I was happy to have learned more Hindi (my parents speak the language), but my English was definitely more broken. Now as I’m living in Madrid for the next year, every now and then a Hindi word pops up as I struggle to speak Spanish! And my English is broken again. I’m not sure I’ll end this year knowing English, Hindi, and Spanish properly, but I’m going to try!

  20. Wheelingit

    I can so totally relate to this. Danish by birth, grew up in Asia and travelled all over. For the first 5 years of my life I actually spoke a mixed English/Danish which only my parents (and the dog) could understand. Over time I even adopted the quirk of mimicking peoples accents, which folks often misinterpret for me taking the Mickey out of them…or would that be making fun? Either way I get it.
    Nina

  21. Randy

    Hey Derek,

    Great post. Haven’t got to read a post from you in awhile because I’ve been wandering myself. It still blows my mind that this whole thing started with the $1000 per month post. Now I’ve been on the road 9 months. Okay, so enough about that. As far as this post goes I couldn’t agree more. I used to be getting pretty good at Spanish until I left the Americas. I used to be good at English when I was in university, and now I’m learning Serbian. Well because that’s where am now. But I find when I talk to my dad on the phone my English sucks. I can still talk “fancy” and I can still do a perfect southern accent impression but I can’t remember words like sinker (for fishing) chisel, affordable, impressionable, or games I used to play as a kid. Old nursery rhymes? Forget it! I can’t even remember the rhythm. Anyway thanks (as always) for turning me on to this lifestyle hope to see you out on the road someday!

  22. Blanka

    Hi Earl, yep been there many times 🙂 Now being back in Czech for five years already, it is not that often but it still occurs.. You don’t need to worry so – it’s always a very nice read (and we are still using your articles in my lessons – to learn from & not only English). Have a great time, Blanka 🙂

  23. Victoria@ The British Berliner

    So funny Earl but also so scary. I’ve lived in Germany for 15 years now and sometimes when I go back to England (especially when I’m on the phone), German words start spilling out. It wouldn’t be so bad except that people think I’ve either said something rude or unpleasant, when all I really said was “wahrscheinlich” meaning “probably!”

  24. Alice

    So true. I lost part of my native Romanian command after moving to Scotland. Now the way I speak with people back home who know English is a bit of a mixture between Romanian and English. The problem is trying to hold back all the English words when talking to my father, who doesn’t speak English at all.

  25. Barret Osborne

    It reminds me of my time in Afghanistan working with the ANA (Afghan National Army). Hand motions, choppy sentences, and mixed sentences of Pashtu, English, and Dari is what got us by. Those were some fun times.

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