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.
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.
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!)