Fluent in Any Language

Why Me No Fluent In Any Language At All

Derek Personal Stuff, Perspectives 84 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 84

  1. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

  26. After only two weeks in Thailand, I found myself bowing my head and putting folded hands to my chest saying kop khun kha after returning to the United States.

  27. Ha. Loved this piece. And I too have to admit in the beautiful mix of languages, all in the same sentence. I’ve worked on my own Latin English blends. Must sound so interesting for those that only get bits n pieces. Great work

  28. Hey Earl,

    I can so relate to this post. My Bulgarian has severely deteriorated since I came to the USA: I no longer read books in Bulgarian nor listen to serious radio stations/watch TV. As a result, my active vocabulary (Bulgarian) consists of a a limited set of words and phrases I exchange with other Bulgarians here or when Skyping my family. Sometimes I too forget words (and get embarrassed), especially when I am back to Bulgaria. I bet my family thinks I fake it. For attention. Those, not exposed to this phenomenon can’t understand – you are not allowed to forget your mother tongue. In fact my Bulgarian right now is an awful mixture of English words with added the grammatically appropriate Bulgarian ending. Bunglish?

    Sometimes people ask me when I dream if I dream in English or Bulgarian. And it’s hard to explain that neither is dominant… it all depends on the place and people I find myself with that shape the language. I’m a completely different person when speaking English and Bulgarian (non-verbal communication, gestures, intonation, everything…) Can’t explain it… I’m sure I make no sense and sound like a split personality person with an immediate need of a psychiatric help? But hey, the purpose of a language is to understand the other side and be understood. If it serves its purpose, who cares how heavily accented, lacking grammar or how broken it is?

  29. Haha. I spend more time speaking Thai than English unless I meet up with some expat friends. Recently went back to grad school where classes are in English. Although I’m the only native speaker, I’m constantly forgetting words, usually very easy vocabulary as well.

  30. It’s funny, because even if you don’t know a language well, you still can slip. For example I was writing something down in a notebook in English, but for some reason instead of writing the word “with” I wrote the Spanish version “con”. Another time instead of “have” I wrote “tiene”. Funny how even if you can’t speak a language, you still unconsciously have it in your head!

  31. I have the same thing with Dutch and English, since I speak most of the time English now I mixup some words when I speak Dutch. Lucky enough English is pretty well known in the Netherlands so nobody really cares :D.

  32. Haha, well. My mother tongue (Polish) got so bad I can’t even write a simple blog post in Polish or even talk to people 😉 However, “quitting” my Polish made me want to learn other languages and you can do this when you travel – I recommend language courses abroad

  33. You made me laugh out loud SO MUCH. I can really relate to your story. Oh well, there have been many many times during which I mixed Italian, English and Spanish in one sentence, with a terrible final result. I must say I have a talent for picking up languages (that’s my only talent, sadly) so I can say a few things even in Greek. I agree that not speaking the language of the place you are visiting can actually lead to unique and hilarious moments!

    P.s.: I also hate it when I forget words.

  34. No worries. Your ability to write in English hasn’t diminished in any way. I totally understand what you are on about. After being an expat for 9 years now and living in different countries I have managed to reach a fluent level in english and german and a very good one in Spanish, but sadly I have to say that many times I find it easier to express myself in english than my mother tongue which is polish. So yes, I can proudly say I speak 4 languages, but somehow non of them perfectly. Sometimes it really creates funny situations. Especially when I hang out with my polish expat friend in Berlin and we tend to mix languages, but still manage to understand each other, or when I sometimes translate something directly from one language into other which in the end doesn’t make any sense at all. I am still glad though that I am multilingual! It really makes my life easier during my travels!

  35. As soon as I read the title of this article I was already relieved.
    I can not only relate to everything you say but I feel I’m a total joke as I learned English at 30 (and obviously I am not fluent), but the worst part is that since I’m traveling, my native language, Italian, got much worst too.

    The big joke is when I get back home. Sometimes I don’t find the words in Italian but I know them in English.

    Every time I write a blog post is pure torture as I wish I could express myself in English like I (used to) do in Italian, but it’s obviously impossible. So reading that you struggle when writing your own blog post made me feel a bit better. I know, I know… it’s bad to feel better for other people’s struggles but I feel I’m not alone at least!

    My language now is a mix of English, Italian and Spanish so I guess we can call it…
    Itaspanglish. TERRIBLE, SEÑOR, MUCHO TERRIBILE!!

  36. My problem isn’t so much that I’m not fluent any language, but that I’m fluent in one! I lived in a French speaking country for two years and there were a lot of words that I just learned the names of there – especially local fruits.

    A couple months ago, I was at a party and I had to ask a French girl next to me, “How do you say cendriller in English?” and she was like, “Ashtray… are you serious?”

    It all comes back eventually!

  37. Ah so true! After teaching English in Vietnam for a long time I found that I have lost a lot of ‘complex’ words from my vocabulary, have a lot of trouble thinking of basic words, and use grammar like my students. *shudder*

    And don’t you find that you mix the languages up? I learned some French growing up, so if I’m trying to think of a word in say, Korean, sometimes the French word will pop into my head, or vice versa, and it only got worse when I went to Vietnam and then travelled in China….

    Not to mention differences within English. I remember after a year in Australia my sister cracked up when I asked her if we had any ‘washing powder’!

  38. Earl
    as a 76 year old man I wish to welcome you to the world of SENIOR MOMENTS.

    they don’t get any better
    but you will get by.

    I have now been to Finland,St petersburg and the three Baltics- so my countries now number 147.

    Now in Scotland ready to run 2 twp-week UK tours

    and it’s still the UK! Hooray.

    Ron Wesner

  39. Amazing post, Earl. You really hit the nail on the head.
    I believe the English you now speak is called “Special English.” It involves speaking slower than normal and using fewer words. And Special English doesn’t use expressions like “hit the nail on the head.”

  40. For some reason this is quite possibly my favorite post you have written. Well done.

    ” 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.”

  41. Hilarious! It’s almost as though you’ve learned so many random parts of other languages, that you forget some words in English. I find that I forget some random words in English at times and I don’t know any other languages. I think I’m just losing my mind sometimes 😉

  42. Carola,
    When I first tried to learn French, years ago at a San Diego City College night course, the teacher asked me to drop the class after awhile as I was confusing other students as I would first translate from English to German, and then to French, lol. French is NOT easy….

  43. Haha, I felt so identified! I feel the same… I have two mother tongues and I live in a foreign country, where I work… in another two languages! So I use four languages every week, almost daily. And as you say, I sometimes cannot find a word in one of them, or I speak with a different accent… And in one month I’m off to travel for a year, let’s see what happens to my four languages 🙂 Thanks for sharing, I feel less alone 🙂

  44. I actually designed a whole journey just to learn a language. I wanted to learn French so I decided the best way of doing so would be by walking through France for a couple of months. Being German with a fairly good knowledge of English I expected to come out the other end being fluent in French. Nope. It seems too darn complicated.
    The weirdest thing for me, though, is that I sometimes switch between English and German and don’t even notice it. Only when I see the puzzled look on the other person’s face I’ll realize….
    I do find, however that reading (books or “more qualitative” writing) helps keeping a good command of a language if I’m not using that language in speaking for a while.

    Happy travels!
    Carola

  45. So true! The downside for me is being judged by non traveler friends back “home”. People assume I’m rich because I travel the world. And when my sentences involve words from 2 or three languages, sometimes using Spanish grammar rules when speaking English, or a non native English speaker helps me with a(simple) word I can’t remember, people just think I’m weird. So I often feel uncomfortable visiting my own country and it makes me want to get back out on the road again.

  46. Yuuuuu Nicaragua!!!! Viva Nicaragüita ;-).
    I just happen to love Spanish, I’m a language freak. I want to learn it all. But I should explore more countries than just the ones I know the language of. I’m forgetting my Dutch too, speaking it with another accent. When I don’t know the word in English, I’ll just say it in Spanish, or vice versa. You know the Sapir-Whorf theory? Interesting though. Every language takes you to a new world..

  47. As an online English teacher (through Italki/Skype), I definitely understand your frustration. I live in the US and I’m a native English speaker, but I spend 7-10 hours a day talking on Skype to students from ALL over the world…with various levels of English.

    I asked my brother the other day “Can you check connection of internet?” and I’ve also said recently begun structuring my sentences like “I feel myself very stressed.” after my lessons!

    The struggle is real, my friend! 😉

  48. wow I had no clue English wasn’t your first language. I am working on learning Hindi and for the past 2 years with all my expat friends being brit, plus my indian friends speak british english, I have changed some words to that type of english accidentally.

  49. Being a Texan, a know a good bit of Spanish that’s come in handy on my travels. (I read your Travglish in a Spanish accent, ha!) I like to learn a few key phrases before I go to a new country; I’ve found that most locals respond favorably when I approach them in their own language, even if I can’t continue the conversation in their language. But hey, who needs language when you’re skilled at pantomime? Ha! I saw a lady once trying to ask where the nearest showers were- she lifted her arms, and sang, and pretended to scrub her armpits- so funny, but she got her point across.

  50. Yep. Know what you mean.

    One night in Ollantaytambo, Peru, I was attempting Spanish with my friends husband, telling him what time a sweat was scheduled. He blinked a couple of times and looked really strange. Then his cheeks raised in the widest grin I have ever seen. Somewhere in the translation I told him prostitutes would be there.

    My cheeks were really RED!

  51. After 3 years in South Korea, where the person I spoke with most often was my Korean boyfriend (who isn’t fluent in English), my English is pretty bad too. I find old e-mails I wrote years ago and I can’t believe the vocabulary I used to have. I mean it wasn’t impressive but it was so much better than now. Speaking to people who don’t speak English well, that’s what you condition yourself to do: never use a word or expression that they probably don’t know. Unfortunately my job is ESL teacher so…it’s kind of a shame my English is so bad now. 🙁

  52. I loved your article!

    We have being on the road for 5 months and sometimes I struggle with my Portuguese (my mother tongue). And I´m always adding new foreign words and expressions in our english/portuguese conversation. If I need to coarse I do it in Polish, sounds much better. “Hold on” becomes “Aspeta”, italians know how to deal with delays 🙂 “Ok” turned into “Vale” And “Yes” is funnier when we say “Oui”…

    The interesting fact is when I write my articles (we do our blog in english and portuguese). First I write it in english and when I have to do it in Portuguese I miss so many words. It feels that English is making more sense than my own native language!
    Now we are heading to Asia, let´s see what it will be with such different languages!

    Best travels!

  53. As a Dutch-speaking Belgian guy who is married to an English-speaking American girl I can totally related to this post. Although my English gets better every day – I’d say that I’m fluent right now – I do use a LOT of the same words and sentences on a daily basis. Living in the US and not regularly speaking Dutch anymore has made it more difficult to communicate in my mother tongue sometimes. I now tend to mix the two languages when talking, using literally translated expressions from one language when expressing myself in the other. I know it sounds ridiculous sometimes.

  54. Haha, that sounds so familiar to me! I’m bilingual as quite a lot people are in Ukraine. My significant other and I speak two different languages in everyday life + we both learn French as we are now living in France and read&talk to a lot of people in English….so in result, our conversations do get sooo messy.

    I’ve noticed that I like how some words and expressions sound better in other language, so can’t help inserting them once in a while.

  55. Loved this article! I have lost count of the number of times I confused my (very) limited Spanish, French, and German. But hey, at least I try. I find that I often communicate best through sign language, laughter and smiles though.

  56. Ja, es verdad! I remember my first trip overseas. I was in Köln (Cologne to English-only folks) and about to head to Paris on the 630pm train. I was on the platform when the InterCity for Roma pulled up. I had a Eurailpass. “Northern Europe’s too cold this week” I decided, and hopped on heading to Rome. Paid a few Deutschmarks (it was pre-€) for a berth in a 2nd-class 6-person compartment.

    My compartment-mates were two German girls from Hamburg on holiday, a Dutch woman, a guy from Ethiopia who was a medical student in Rome, and a French woman. I had slightly-remembered school Spanish, less-remembered less-studied school German. We had wonderful conversations the entire trip, and some of us got together in Rome to sightsee. That evening, while still in Germany, everyone used a mix of mostly-German, some English, and for the Ethiopian guy who had Italian but no English or German, I managed some Spanish and hoped it was similar enough. In the morning, as we were in Switzerland and heading into Italy, we somehow unconsciously decided to switch to attempted-Italian or at least Romance-languages-primary as our lingua franca.

    It worked. It was hilarious, eye-opening, and freeing. Freeing from the drilled-in via language classes that grammar and vocabulary has to be correct or else! No, it doesn’t. Communication happens when you make the attempt.

    I picked up an Italian dictionary in Roma. Had nothing as Italy was not originally on my agenda at all (It became 10 days of this 3 week trip!) I was able to figure out enough of the very similar grammar and mapped the word structure onto my limited Spanish, and started attempting italiano. Worked ok. Eventually I studied Italian for a year when I got back to the States, though that’s way back now.

    Living in Uruguay, it’s almost like always being in a mixed-language environment: Uruguayan Spanish is nothing like any standard Latin American Spanish you’d study. Major influence from all the Italian immigration in the 19th and early 20th century, which creeps into the dropped endings, singular “Buen día” (good day) instead of “Buenos días” plural, because Italian has “Buon giorno” in the same singular. Drop the “s” on word endings because Italian has no words ending in “s” for plurals. It’s almost like being in that train compartment again!

    Not to mention the Brazilian Portuguese influence too. Lengua Mista for all!

  57. Yes! I loved this article and I’m glad I’m not the only one who is experiencing a slow decline in English fluency, or rather a confusion of accent, phrases, and grammar.

    I’ve been traveling in Southeast Asia for the last three years with my husband. I seem to pick up weird phrases faster than him, so that sometimes he makes fun of me (I have so many Australian friends out here that I now say “hey” at the end of every question), but we also end up speaking broken English to each other. It’s so weird!

  58. I thought I was the only one that had some difficulty with “English” after traveling. My family always knew where I traveled upon returning home due to my “accent.” I wasn’t aware of it, until friends in other countries also noticed it. Many times I’d forget English words while using local words to describe what I was thinking. Language is fun.

  59. I feel your pain! I only travel part-time, and sometimes after a only a few weeks in a country I struggle to come up with simple english words. Glad I’m not alone!! I always learn a few phrases to get me by. Even saying “hello” to someone in their language can really change how they interact with you. Regardless of whether they speak your language or not. It shows effort, and people reward you for it with kindness.

  60. Bye, Goodbye, Airport? Interesting way to end the blog, lol.

    Yes, I do try to learn a bit of the language before I go somewhere…..mainly because I like languages and have a knack for them. I speak fluent German, pretty good Spanish, and a smattering of French, Hungarian, Portuguese, Italian, Czech, Polish, Dutch…enough to say thank you, where is, that sort of thing. I will admit, in Europe, which is where i mainly go I have never been not understood by using English or German, but I do try to start off by using the language of where I happen to be.
    And yes, I still mix therm up…..I’ve said Danke to a taxi driver in NYC, Gracias to the lady in Krakow giving me directions, sometimes they just all seem to be whirling about in my head

  61. Oh man tell me about it 🙂
    I’m a Turkish guy and my English skill is higher than average. First year of my travel was with a French girl. She learned English on the way from France to Serbia. On the way she learned some basic Croatian which is similar to Serbian.
    So, here is the funny part.
    I can speak Turkish, English and basic Serbian.
    She can speak French and basic English & Croatian.

    And there are thousands of common words between Turkish and French – Serbian.
    You can imagine, when we start speaking the sentence starts with English, continues with some common words of Turkish and French and ends with some Serbian – Croatian word.

    We get use to speak like this together. People around can hear sentence like this:
    – Did you see that pano? (Pano means sign both in Turkish & French)
    or
    – This cammion shofor idete to Skopje. (cammion-Fr,Tr: truck, shofor-Fr,Tr: driver, idete-Sr: to go)

    So after all year walking 1000 km together, i started to forget English. I find myself using these mixed sentences also to foreigners. :)))

  62. Ah! This is so true! I remember coming back home after being gone for a year in Korea and trying… and failing to describe a pair of pants to my brother. And don’t even get me started on your nonnative english speaking friends coming up with words for you… *tear

  63. Yeah, the more I travel the less control I have over any language. Every sentence becomes a linguistic mush worthy of the Babel Tower builders. English is still pretty much the lingua franca of our world, so that’s slowly become my dominant language. Other languages I have at some point or other spoken fluently have been really helpful while traveling though. However, I agree that not knowing what the hell is going on can be conducive to great experiences (I recall funny “conversations” with Japanese elders in some lost part of Japan, who still decided to ramble on even though I obviously had no idea what they were saying).

  64. I am learning Tamil (predominantly a South Indian language). I understand the entire alphabet/script – although there are many hurdles to get through whilst not in Tamil Nadu, such as a total lack of resources.

    Also learning Spanish, but I put that on hold for Tamil…

  65. Ha! We call this Max-lish because we learned this form of travel English from our friend who has been living in Vietnam and Myanmar for the last several years. I also pride myself on the number of useless phrases I can throw out in random languages, including Bahasa Indonesian and Vietnamese. I like that I can say cheers in about a dozen languages, but I also have the problem where my sentences often involve 2 to 3 languages at one time, also annoying family and friends back “home.” So, yeah, you are definitely not alone!

  66. After two years of traveling through Mexico and Central America we expected our Spanish to be much better than it actually is. Alas! Learning a new language takes a lot more discipline than we’d anticipated and so we use a fractured version of basic English, basic Spanish, pantomime and lots of smiles! I have to agree with you that the laughter is the best part of the communication process!

  67. I found my native English to be … interesting … after years of speaking primarily Swedish. After a year back in the English speaking world my fluency in my native tongue had returned.

  68. Hi, I wrote to you a while back about languages. I finished my 6-months stay in Italy, going to a Language school there and am now fluent in Italian. I am back in Canada (Québec) and I just started Learning German and Spanish. I am also fluent in English due to Learning it for years at school. I don’t like Learning a Language halfway because I Always end up really embarassed when I try to speak it out loud. I never feel confident enough tohold a conversation. That said, about loosing your first Language, I realised while speaking to other tourists that I actually knew more vocabulary in English than in French. This is because I’ve aken the habit of calling everything “thing” (truc, chose, patante etc.) which means there are many things I just don’t know the name of in French.

  69. I think forgetting words is called getting older. It happens to me all of the time.

    I do not pick up phrases before I go someplace. I always have intentions to, but never do. I am fluent in Spanish though and that sometimes helps even when not in a Spanish speaking country. I can get by understanding Italian via my Spanish.

  70. Too many years spent in Quebec speaking Franglais, where English and French words used interchangeably within a sentence. Can’t shake saying ‘depanneur’ when looking for a corner store, or ‘open the light’ (direct translation of turning on the light in French). Then, after long trips in Latin America I’d start replacing French words with Spanish. Language can really screw us up 🙂
    Frank(bbqboy)

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