Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

A Little Foreign Language Goes a Long Way

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.


[Readers of this essay may wish to read my essay from July 2010, "What is Normal - Part 2. Writing Systems".]

In the past 30-odd years, I've flown more than 1.5 million miles (2.5 million kms), and that, along with my hosting activities back home, has provided me with a lot of occasions to be with people whose first language is not my own. Those of you who've met me know that I am a gregarious person. However, in order to socialize, one must be able to communicate, and that can be challenging, even intimidating.

I remember well the first time I really felt inadequate in the foreign-language department. [Most notably, it was not during the 7-week trip I took through Asia and Europe to get to the US initially. Everything then was so new and novel that I didn't notice that my foreign language skills were non-existent.] It was in 1985, and I was returning to the US from a vacation in Australia, when I stopped over in Tahiti, French Polynesia. Each morning, I shared breakfast with a number of other tourists, none of whom spoke English. Now when one makes eye contact with someone at close quarters, if one cannot speak to the other person in a common language, one's only option is a smile (and possibly a nod, assuming a nod has no negative implications in that person's culture). But what to do for Act 2? As it happened, I not only made eye contact, I shared a table with these people, which made for a quiet meal after I'd used up my 10 words of French and they their 10 words of English. Right there and then I decided that I really needed to do something about it. Despite the pervasive use of English around the world, I had no good reason to assume that other people could or should speak that language. At the very least, I should try to meet them on their home turf whenever practicable even if that meant learning just a handful of words and phrases. A little effort can get a lot of respect.

A second situation involved a trip to Germany where I stayed with a friend who spoke English. However, one afternoon, I spent time with her mother who had no English at all. I quickly used up my minimal German, but we pressed on and she helped me prepare food for a Chinese meal I cooked that evening. We had a task to do and we managed to communicate non-verbally. We also spoke in our own languages, not because the other would understand, but the tone one uses and where one puts the stress can communicate meaning.

In 1992, I traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia, to give a series of lectures. My wife and 8-year-old son, Scott, came with me. Scott is also gregarious, so when people made eye contact with him, he always said, "Hello". On this occasion, our translator and guide had prepared a small card for him to carry that said in Russian, "Hello, my name is Scott and I am an American". Then when someone smiled at him or greeted him in Russian, he'd take out his card, smile, and show it to them. One day, the other person responded in English, but my son was expecting to hear Russian, so he didn't really listen, and was quite surprised when I explained what had happened. [During that same trip, several weeks later in Finland, he learned to communicate with others via music.]

As I stated in "Travel: Home Stays" in January 2010, I am a traveler, not a tourist, so I like to get off the beaten path. But even if one is a tourist, to take full advantage of one's travel experience one really needs to interact with the locals even if it's just to ask the price of something, to buy a coffee, or to find a public toilet. I urge you to take the plunge. Remember, nothing ventured, nothing gained!

Do You Speak English?

On many occasions while traveling, I've asked someone, "Do you speak English?", and often they've replied, "A little!" More often than not, their "little" really is quite a lot.

Although English is my first language, I really didn't get to study it formally until I was in my late 20's, when I started learning Spanish. It occurred to me very quickly that if I was to get a handle on Spanish grammar, I should probably understand the grammar of my first language. As a result, my formal English training took place in the US, whereas I'd first learned the language in Australia.

Sprechen Sie Englisch?

Growing up with parents and relatives who occasionally spoke an older variant of German, I got to learn a handful of words and phrases. However, the speaking of German was not promoted in my house even though it was the first language of my parents. [Although they were born in Australia, they spoke German at home and learned English in school at age 5.] A few of my oldest cousins had a decent grasp of the spoken language.

My first foray into learning German was the purchase of a Berlitz cassette course in 1980. It was rather dry and monotonous to work at on my own, and although I learned quite a bit, I never did finish the first 90-minute introductory tape. [Recently, when having a major purge of my stuff, I came across this course, still in its nice carry bag. I was delighted to find a good home for it with a friend. As he still owns a cassette player, I'd have to say that he's an old friend.]

Some 10 years later, I signed up for a 10-week course at Georgetown University in Washington DC. Each Saturday, I sat in class for 3 hours listening, learning, and speaking. The first week, the instructor arrived and spoke for 90 minutes, in German only! It was a shock to all of us attending, as we had not known it was to be a complete immersion class. The books we got were also in German only. I soon went out and bought an introductory German book in English, which saved me from complete failure. Each week for the first few weeks, fewer and fewer students showed up. I'm sure it wasn't nearly as romantic as they had imagined.

After that, I worked a great deal on my own with books learning more grammar and vocabulary. And as I traveled, I tried it all. However, my main problem was that I had no comprehension skills.

More than a few languages are Germanic, so some knowledge of that language has helped me read information as I've traveled.

After a month in Europe recently, with two weeks of that in Germany, I had four weeks of private German tutoring. It certainly was intimidating. I am told with great authority that, "It gets better/easier as you go along". In any event, I'm certain that I don't work that hard for money!

¿Habla Usted inglés?

Years ago, I had been considering taking a formal German class, but as it happened, I got sidetracked into Spanish instead. In any event, some proficiency of Spanish seemed more useful here in the US, and as far as I could tell, Spanish was a lot easier to learn than was German. [While German has three genders, Spanish has only two, which is still one too many! And whereas there mostly is no pattern to the gender of nouns in German, there is in Spanish. Thank Heaven for small mercies!]

My formal Spanish training was also done at Georgetown University. The first course involved 30 hours over 10 weeks. Thankfully, it was not an immersion course. I did well and I liked it; however, I put in a lot of work. Afterwards, I set out with my backpack and my present-tense-only Spanish to Latin America where I probably insulted or confused a lot of people with my efforts to communicate. A year or so later, I followed up with a second course although that was far less enjoyable partly due to the need to spend time recording and listening to one's own voice.

The Romance languages (of which Spanish is one) have many common words and constructs, which gives me a boost when dealing with Italian-, French-, and Portuguese-speaking people.

Anata wa eigo o hanashimasu ka

After my first trip to Japan, I learned that I had been completely unprepared for the communications barrier. So, before my next trip, I set about learning some basic Japanese (as well as buying a bilingual map of Tokyo).

My goals were simple: I didn't need to be able to read or write (which would take a lifetime commitment, especially as there are three writing systems to learn) just to be able to speak and understand simple statements and questions. I did not attend any formal class; I simply studied using a small 120-page phrasebook. The good news came with the revelation that Japanese has the same five vowels as English with sounds approximating those in Spanish. Ok, no problemo!

One of the first things I learned how to say was, "I do not speak Japanese", in Japanese. This, of course, confused many listeners; after all, I had just spoken to them correctly in Japanese! Now no matter how little I can speak in any language, I do try to speak correctly and therein is a real problem. If one sounds like one knows what one is doing, listeners assume that one really does!

Although I ignored reading and writing, I did learn to read the kanji digits 1–10. Prices in local markets and street food stalls are often in an interesting combination of kanji and Arabic digits. For example, a price of 400 yen is often written as 四00, with a kanji 4 followed by two Arabic zeros. So while I could figure out how much I was paying, I had no idea what I was buying!

In general, I found that once people believed me when I said I really didn't speak Japanese, they actually did understand the little I had. And my being able to remember the little prayer one says before a meal (i·ta·da·ki·masu) won me a lot of points. [There's also one to say after a meal, go·chi·so·sa·ma, but I rarely remember to say that one.]

During one trip, I was riding on a train and I wanted some information about my stop. Opposite me sat several Japanese teenage schoolgirls. When I asked them in what I considered was correct Japanese, they looked at each other and giggled out loud. Now as most Japanese since WWII have learned some level of English in school I switched to English in the hopes of a better result. Unfortunately, they giggled even more. Frankly, I suspect they would have giggled if I'd just held up my finger.

Now if you can get passed the reading and writing (as in, ignoring it), you might be pleasantly surprised as how simple the grammar is compared to Western European languages. Verbs are always used in the infinite form; there is no conjugation. YEAH! There are no articles (I think perhaps because German used up the whole world's supply) or plurals. To turn a statement into a question, one simple adds a suffix. In fact, speaking Japanese is as easy as using chopsticks; well, maybe not quite.

By the way, the title of this section is written in Romaji, the method of writing Japanese using Latin (Roman) letters.

Speaking in Numerous Tongues

I know quite a few people who are fluent in at least three languages, and a few who can get by in four, five, and even six. And I met one woman who managed seven, including Latin. Whereas in the US knowing a second language can command premium pay, someone selling international ferry tickets in Tallinn, Estonia, for example, might need to speak English, Russian, Finnish, and Swedish, just to apply for the job, and that's without much if any extra pay.

One Language at a Time, Please!

While some people can casually switch from one language to another when talking in a group, as for me, I can only handle one foreign language at a time. Any attempt to speak in a third language while I'm immersed in a second usually results in my talking in that second language instead.

I'm reminded of an incident during my first time in Costa Rica. There I was, immersed in Spanish when I came across two young women waiting at what looked like a bus stop in a small village near the Caribbean coast. I started speaking to one in Spanish and she replied in Spanish. It was immediately clear to both of us that neither of us were native Spanish speakers. It turned out she was German, and she spoke a bit of Spanish and quite a bit of English. So, English would have been the best language in which to communicate; however, her friend spoke only German. In order to allow the friend to join the conversation, I said, in Spanish, that I spoke some German. Then there was a big pause while I tried to think of some, but I couldn't even remember how to introduce myself and say my name. Basically, I told the first woman in Spanish that I really could speak some German, but right now, I couldn't really think of any as I was "in Spanish mode".

Literacy and Fluency

It is important to mention that it has never been my intention to be either literate or fluent in any language other than English. Yes, I can read various bits of other languages, and that is useful, but I really don't care to nor need to read much other than signs, notices, and menus. And I rarely need to write in another language.

Variations on a Theme

Of course, not all flavors of any given language are created equal. An American might travel to Australia and find she doesn't understand many local terms and has trouble with lazy word endings and run-on speech. A group of Germans, Austrians, and Swiss might all speak German, yet each brings to the conversation a whole other vocabulary and set of pronunciations. Likewise for French speakers from Canada, Belgium, France, and Côte d'Ivoire (the Ivory Coast).

Basic Words and Phrases to Know in any language

So just how many words and phrases must one know to "get by" in another language? Of course, the more the better, but one should start with the obvious ones, as follows: hello, my name is …, yes, no, please, thank you, thanks very much, how much does this cost?, and the numbers zero to 20. Add to that the verbs to eat, to drink, to go, to be, and to pay, and a few adjectives like much and very, and one has a good start.

Faux Pas and Misunderstandings

I can hardly end without admitting to some of my mistakes. Here are a few.

I was in Antigua, the old capital of Guatemala, where I had two weeks of private Spanish tutoring. Each night, I ate at the same restaurant where I was served by the same waitress. She tolerated my poor Spanish and I tipped her well. Ordinarily, I don't eat big meals, but one night, I had room for dessert, so I asked her if she had any cake. She looked blankly at me, but didn't try to figure out what I was saying. After a number of attempts, I got annoyed. I was thinking to myself, "Darn it woman, don't you understand Spanish?" Several days later, I was clear across the country riding a bus when it occurred to me what I'd been asking for. I had the right word but the wrong language. Cake in French is gateaux, which is what I had asked for, but it came across as gato, which in Spanish means cat. So, it was no surprise I didn't get my dessert!

It was Todo Santo (All Saints Day), a big event on the Catholic calendar, and there I was as a lunch guest at a family in rural Mexico. From time to time, different people tried to get me involved in their conversation by asking me questions. I started talking about what I thought was His Holiness the Pope, but it soon became obvious that no one was following. As it turned out, I was using the feminine la papa, which means potato, when I should have been using the masculine el papa, the Pope. Potato, Pope; hey what's the big deal, right? [It occurred to me later that perhaps The Devil made me do it!]

When traveling with a 2-year-old, one tends to choose restaurants where one can get seated and served quickly. As such, on our swing through Belgium, my family and I ate at a number of Pizza Huts. Not only was their menu standard and much like their restaurants back home, but it had pictures. After I'd struggled to order from the menu in French, I handed the menu to the waiter only to notice that on the back page there was an abbreviated version in English. C'est la vie!


Back in the 1800's, the American writer, Mark Twain, went to Heidelberg, Germany, to study German. Afterwards, he wrote an essay called, "Die Schreckliche Deutsche Sprache" ("The Awful German Language"), in which he put the worst possible spin on that language, but in an entertaining way. Some years ago, I bought a copy of that book with alternate pages in English and German. I highly recommend it to anyone who has worked at learning a European language.

By far my most fascinating language moment occurred many years ago, during my first trip to Japan. There I was standing in Tokyo Central Station having just arrived from Narita Airport. I was looking at the black-line subway map (which, like most such maps was neither to scale nor with correct direction) thinking to myself, "How the heck am I going to figure out which line to get on, how to buy a ticket, and to know when to get off?" [This was in the days before multi-lingual computer information screens that are (fortunately) now prevalent around the world.] As I was pondering my predicament, a voice from behind me asked in German, "Kann ich Sie helfen? (Can I help you?)" I turned, smiled, and answered, "Ja (Yes)". As I looked to be a Western European, he used the only mainstream language he knew from that region, and it worked. So, there was an Albanian talking German to an Australian in Japan!

When you are in your own normal world, don't forget how intimidating it was when you were trying to communicate in someone else's language. Specifically, when you meet beginning speakers of your language, speak more slowly and use a simpler vocabulary without being condescending. And when you are in their normal world, be polite, by trying to use their words, pronunciations, and customs.

And watch out, those darn foreigners appear to have words for everything!